|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference by Commissioner-General of United Nations Relief
and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in Near East
With the approach of the 1,000 day mark since the start of the blockade against Gaza, an illegal economy was being imposed on the territory’s people, who now depended on goods imported through illegal tunnels, Filippo Grandi, the newly appointed Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said today.
Speaking at a Headquarters press conference, he said that, as a consequence of the blockade, little of the $5 billion pledged for Gaza’s reconstruction, in Sharm el-Sheikh a year ago, could be disbursed. Bad materials were being used for what little reconstruction took place, he said, adding that concrete manufacturers had told him they were very unhappy about having to deal with black marketeers and wanted normality.
He said that, since his appointment on 20 January, he had toured the region and his main concern was the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory where about half of the 4.7 million refugees under UNRWA’s responsibility lived. Regarding the situation in the West Bank, he said Israel’s recently announced decision to build new homes for settlers in East Jerusalem did not help efforts to build the climate of trust so desperately needed for the resumption of peace talks.
Welcoming United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s decision to visit the Middle East, including the Gaza Strip, Mr. Grandi recalled that the United Nations chief had been the first international leader to visit the enclave following the end of the December 2008-January 2009 hostilities, and expressed hope that his upcoming visit would be the beginning of a new and positive phase for the people living there.
Noting that UNRWA also worked for Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, he said that, during his visit to Lebanon, he had met with the country’s President and Prime Minister, who had assured him that the new Government was serious in its intention to expand the rights of refugees and improve living conditions in their camps.
The reconstruction of northern Lebanon’s Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, destroyed in 2007, was ongoing, but UNRWA was running out of funds to complete the project, he said. The Agency’s financial situation remained difficult as its core programme ‑‑ activities for education, health and a social safety net for the poor ‑‑ was chronically under-funded. Some $600 million was needed annually, while pledges had been received for some $450 million, a shortfall of about 20 per cent. The problem was that UNRWA’s work could not stop, he stressed, pointing out that some 20,000 teachers had to be paid and schools heated. Operations had to continue every day, he said, adding that resources were also needed for innovations like a programme for young Palestinians that he wished to launch.
Asked about possible inflation in Gaza due to the “tunnel economy”, the Commissioner-General said data were difficult to come by, especially since Gaza’s economy was small and volatile, with enormous consequences for a population dependent on tunnels for its survival. Commodity prices could drop dramatically if 100 bags came in, and skyrocket if nothing passed through the tunnels for three days, he added. UNRWA did not get its supplies through the tunnels, but could only use one crossing between Israel and Gaza, which was open for a certain number of hours in a day.
Only food and medical supplies were allowed to pass, he continued, adding that trucks had to unload before the crossing and the goods loaded onto trucks on the other side afterwards. It was clear that other crossings must be opened because the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border was only meant for people and medical purposes, according to the 2005 Access and Movement Agreement. If Gaza was closed from every side, only an “explosion” could follow, he warned.
Asked about the role of the United States in and contributions to UNRWA, Mr. Grandi said that, alongside the European Commission, that country was the Agency’s biggest donor and most important interlocutor. He added that he looked forward to talking to friends, as well as critics of UNRWA’S programme, and would carry the message that United States support was not only important for the Palestinian refugees but also for the country itself.
He went on to say there was nothing new about a resolution before the United States Congress proposing that before money could be released to UNRWA, the President must certify, among other things, that the Agency was not impeding a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would undergo an independent audit, and would not publish anti-Jewish propaganda. Emphasizing that UNRWA was not responsible for negotiating a permanent solution, he said a final settlement should include a resolution of the refugee problem. When that happened, UNRWA could disappear, he said, adding that, until then, the Agency was a good tool for the international community to use in caring for the refugees.
Although UNRWA was audited by the United Nations Board of Auditors, it was always open to review by others, including the United States, he said, recalling that the Government Accountability Office had given the Agency good ratings in 2009. An independent evaluation of UNRWA’s educational material stated that the curriculum contained no inflammatory material, he added. On the contrary, the curriculum had been augmented with human rights material to instil a peaceful attitude among the Palestinian youth, who lived in a very inflammatory environment.
UNRWA’s role was straightforward, he stressed in answer to another question about the possible political implications of its work. Its mandate was clear: education, health and poverty relief. However, the highly politicized environment did have an impact on the Agency’s work, impacting on staff access to Jerusalem and the importation of materials into Gaza. Highlighting that impact was legitimate, as were his remarks about Israel’s housing policy, which reflected the opinion of the Secretary-General, Mr. Grandi emphasized.
Responding to other questions, he said he wished to dispel the notion that Arab countries were not contributing to UNRWA. Last year, for instance, Arab donors had financed more than 10 per cent of the Agency’s overall activities, he noted, citing Saudi Arabia as having given $25 million towards the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared, the same amount as the United States. The Emir of Kuwait had paid for the entire first appeal of $34 million after the eruption of the Gaza conflict erupted. However, UNRWA was trying to convince Arab donors to contribute more to fund the Agency’s core activities. Their contributions were still far below the 7.7 per cent budget contribution stipulated by the League of Arab States, he said, adding that their donations now stood at 1.5 per cent.
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