VIENNA, 31 March — The United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People this afternoon concluded its first plenary session on the immediate and longer-term humanitarian needs in Gaza, and held a second such session focusing on resolving Gaza’s severe energy deficit.
Robert Turner, Director of Gaza Operations, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), spoke about the challenges facing the enclave and said the blockade, which was nearing the end of the eighth year, had largely destroyed the economy and caused massive unemployment and poverty. For the first time, there was large-scale illegal emigration from Gaza, he said, adding that history had shown that if the root causes of the repeated conflicts were not addressed, the path would once again lead to more conflict.
John Gatt-Rutter, European Union Representative for West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and UNRWA, briefed the Seminar on the political support and cooperation assistance provided by the European Union. Last summer, he said, the international community had been unanimous in its plea: that Operation Protective Edge should be the last, and that there should be an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people and to the status quo.
During the second plenary of the Seminar, entitled “Looking ahead: prioritizing reconstruction tasks”, speakers focused on ways of resolving Gaza’s severe energy deficit.
Haitham Ghanem, Project Manager for the Sunshine4Palestine Association, based in Gaza, briefed the Seminar on the possibilities of using solar power to produce energy, stating that the plants were reliable and robust, lasted 30 years, produced a constant and predictable supply of energy and were eco-sustainable.
Michael Neuwirth, a Coordination Officer with the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), based in Jerusalem, spoke about the dedicated efforts of his Office to address Gaza’s many challenges and said progress on the energy and water sectors, including waste-water treatment and desalination, was practically a prerequisite for all other reconstruction efforts.
Simon Henderson, Director of the Gulf and Energy Program at the Washington Institute, referred to his March 2014 policy brief “Natural Gas in the Palestinian Authority: the Potential of the Gaza Marine Offshore Field” and spoke about the investment costs required to develop the Gaza Marine and the expected output. The question of how Gaza and Israel’s gas and electricity could be intermingled was key, he said.
During the afternoon meeting, representatives of the following countries took the floor to make statements or put questions to the panellists: Venezuela, Egypt, Spain, Morocco, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Turkey, Indonesia and Austria.
A number of other participants, including civil society representatives, also took the floor.
The United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People will continue at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 1 April, at the United Nations Office at Vienna to continue Plenary II, titled “Looking ahead: prioritizing reconstruction tasks”, focusing on the issue of resolving Gaza’s critical water crisis.
The programme, statements, press releases and other documentation relating to the Seminar are available on the UNISPAL website.
Plenary I — Immediate and Longer-Term Humanitarian Needs in the Gaza Strip
ROBERT TURNER, Director of Gaza Operations, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), spoke via video teleconference as the morning’s plenary continued about the challenges faced in Gaza, compounded by the political situation, the blockade and the occupation. The blockade, which was nearing the end of its eighth year, had largely destroyed Gaza’s economy and caused massive unemployment and poverty. The 2014 conflict was incredibly difficult, he said, noting that UNRWA had lost 11 staff members. It was fortunate, he added, that there was no outbreak of communicable disease. The psychological impact of the conflict, in addition to the massive death, destruction and displacement, could not be overestimated. There had been three conflicts over the last six years, but the difference in the aftermath of the latest one was the change in attitude of the Gaza population. For the first time, there was illegal emigration from Gaza on a large scale. The border with Egypt had largely been closed for almost two years, and for the vast majority of people Gaza was indeed a prison.
The general population, he went on, was angry and frustrated, particularly by the political process. The reality was there was no effective government in Gaza and had not been since last June. There was no sense of a single Palestinian political entity or that there would be one anytime soon. Given the recent statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a two-State solution seemed further away than ever before. UNRWA’s funding shortfall was $540 million and it faced a huge gap in financial capacity. Not a single home destroyed last summer had been rebuilt. However, the challenges were not only financial, he said, noting the difficulties in accessing construction materials. Gaza’s future was unclear and there were many questions, including whether the Palestinian Authority would take control of it, whether there would be economic development and job creation, and whether the water situation would improve. As history had shown, if the root causes of the repeated conflicts were not addressed, the path would revert once again to more conflict, he concluded.
JOHN GATT-RUTTER, European Union Representative for West Bank and the Gaza Strip, UNRWA, based in Jerusalem, underlined that the Union was a longstanding and consistent supporter of Palestinians in Gaza at the political level and through its development assistance. It would continue to stand by Gazans in the future. It also had consistently called for the lifting of restrictions on movement and access, and underlined the fact that Gaza was an essential part of a future Palestinian State. In that connection, he welcomed efforts at Palestinian reconciliation designed to bring about political and institutional reunification. He discussed ways in which the European Union addressed needs on the ground, including by paying the salaries of civil servants throughout Palestine in order to ensure that essential services were delivered to the public. The Union also continued to support Palestine refugees through its financial contribution of more than $80 million per year to UNRWA, making it the Agency’s largest single multilateral donor. It also provided substantial support to key sectors on the ground, notably water and land development, strengthening the private sector and contributing to job creation and institution-building. Following the 2014 conflict, the Union had stepped up its humanitarian response and increased its contributions to UNRWA to help address urgent needs in Gaza.
The separation of Gaza from the West Bank had been a disaster, he said, not only for living conditions of the Palestinians, but also at the political level. It reflected the division at the heart of the Palestinian political body and had resulted in two divergent legal and political systems. The Gaza-West Bank divide continued to seriously undermine the two-State vision, a point made regularly by Israelis, who were, at the same time, pursuing a strategy of “divide and rule”. The European Union welcomed the formation of the National Consensus Government in June 2014, and noted fresh shoots of hope in recent weeks, culminating in Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s visit to Gaza last week. He also noted efforts by Switzerland and others to mediate solutions. Huge efforts must be made towards reconstruction, and although progress was slow, credit was due to the United Nations for its relentless efforts, even though it had become fashionable to blame the Organization for what was a collective failure.
In mid-2014, he recalled, the international community was unanimous in its plea: that Operation Protective Edge should be the last, that there should be an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people, and that there should be an end to the status quo. Reconstruction efforts should be allowed to proceed without excessive security restrictions or internal political obstacles. The European Union would continue to engage with its political muscle and its financial and technical means, but the international community alone could not do the heavy lifting. Ultimately, change would come about through the domestic Powers: in particular the Palestinians and the Israelis, and the Egyptians.
The representative of Venezuela said that in 2014 the world had witnessed the most recent Israeli offensive, which had killed more than 2,000 people and caused incalculable infrastructure damages. Since the beginning of the conflict and until December 2014, Venezuela had sent tens of tonnes of food and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people. He urged the international community to make financial and material efforts to support the Palestinian people.
Other participants at the Seminar, including representatives of civil society organizations, also asked questions of the panellists. Issues raised included the blockade on the Gaza Strip, the destruction of UNRWA schools and European Union-built projects, and efforts by the international community to address root causes. A participant said it appeared that Israel was upholding the blockade with Egypt’s cooperation.
The representative of Egypt said that Israel, the occupying Power, was wholly responsible for the blockade. Regarding the Rafah closing, the speaker noted that there were also six Israeli crossings that were constantly closed. The Rafah crossing was not part of the reconstruction process and was strictly a bilateral issue, he said, adding that Egypt faced an ongoing war on terrorism, especially in the northern Sinai desert, which made it very difficult to secure humanitarian assistance and personnel in that area. During the 51-day war in mid-2014, the Rafah crossing had been kept open and Egypt had cooperated with the massive humanitarian exercise, allowing foreigners who were trapped in Gaza to leave and treating the injured in Egyptian hospitals.
The representative of Spain said it had made considerable commitments to the people of Palestine, and had made more than 500 million Euros in aid available to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In particular, Spain made efforts in the fields of agriculture, food security and water.
The representative of Morocco said the Gaza Strip, which, since 2008, had suffered three wars, was an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. Morocco called on Israel to immediately lift the siege and restart negotiations with the Palestinians. The speaker highlighted Morocco’s assistance to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which included $14 million in humanitarian relief to Gaza, the establishment of a field hospital there, the opening of Moroccan markets to Palestinian products, and the provision of medical treatment in Morocco for injured Gazans and of technical assistance in various areas from agricultural development to water resources.
The representative of Pakistan expressed hope that the pledges made at the Cairo Conference would be honoured. The “build-destroy, build-destroy” cycle had to end, he said, adding that recent statements by the Israeli leadership seemed to be moving further away from a two-State solution. Yet, a viable two-State solution was the only recipe for stability in the region.
The representative of Afghanistan called for renewed investment in Gaza and the immediate end of the blockade. Afghanistan was confronted with very similar challenges to those facing Gaza, particularly with regard to rebuilding housing and providing access to basic services. The speaker expressed strong solidarity with the Palestinian people.
The representative of China expressed deep concern about the continued unrest in the Middle East, and said the spread of violent extremism highlighted the urgency of solving the Palestinian issue. Palestine’s attempt to integrate into the international community through the United Nations was an attempt to prompt Israel into an early return to peace talks.
The representative of Turkey said assisting the Palestinian people was one of its foreign policy priorities. Between 2004 and 2014, Turkey had provided $301 million in development assistance to Palestine, and in the aftermath of the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2014, it had been at the forefront of providing urgent humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people. Turkey would resolutely continue its efforts for Gaza’s reconstruction and the establishment of a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The representative of Indonesia said the blockade had had a debilitating impact upon the Gaza Strip. Expressing particular concern about the denial of clean water to the people of Gaza, he said the international community should speak with one voice to demand Israel to end its blockade.
A civil society representative from Egypt said the comment that Egypt cooperated with Israel in closing the border crossing was untrue. When terrorism spread to Sinai, the border had to be closed. However, President Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to Egypt had led to an agreement on the opening of the border. Egyptians were always in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Another participant asked about the destruction of European Union facilities, whether a value on the destruction of European Union-funded projects could be given, and whether any compensation would be made.
During replies by the panellists, Mr. TURNER, Director of Gaza Operations, UNRWA, said there were currently 70,000 displaced persons living in 13 Agency schools in Gaza, which severely impacted upon the quality of education received by children there. UNRWA hoped that those 13 schools would soon be returned to their function of educational establishments. Answering the question about efforts by the international community, he said there was no lack of groups and individuals engaged in the question of Palestine, but perhaps it was time to change the way some outstanding issues were being addressed. Regarding the comment about Egypt’s role in the blockade, he emphasized that the siege was the sole responsibility of Israel, the occupying Power. Egypt had no legal responsibility to open the Rafah crossing. However, the openings had been extremely limited since July 2013, and as the United Nations Secretary-General and the Humanitarian Coordinator had said, it would be extremely welcome and useful if Egypt, as a humanitarian and neighbourly gesture, opened the crossing on a more regular basis.
Mr. GATT-RUTTER, European Union Representative for West Bank and the Gaza Strip, UNRWA, said the blockade and the “divide and rule” issues were related. The West Bank and Gaza were physically separate and politically divided, which was part of the reason why Gaza had become increasingly isolated. There could be no serious progress in ending that isolation without political reconciliation. The message of the European Union was that only through uniting institutions and having a truly representative Government could real progress be seen.
Concerning the question about the value of European Union projects demolished by military attacks, he said he was unable to give an exact figure but that the Union was seeking compensation, especially in Area C. With three wars in six years and a very uncertain political horizon, it was very difficult to convince European Union ministers to go beyond what the group already did on a humanitarian assistance level, he said, adding that the European Union needed to see signs of political progress before big reconstruction money could be committed. He noted that there had been an opportunity for a Security Council resolution on Gaza, which would have been helpful and important in consolidating the terms of a ceasefire, particularly with regard to the crossings.
RIYAD MANSOUR, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, said that panellists had rightly observed the solution needed, to address not only the humanitarian and reconstruction needs but also the political situation. The West Bank was geographically separated from the Gaza Strip, but it was also part of the Palestinian homeland. Following the Israeli election, Prime Minster Netanyahu would establish an extreme right-wing Government, he said, stressing that what was required now was a demonstration of political will for the two-State solution, because there was a danger that that goal could evaporate. He recalled that the 2014 ceasefire with Israel was brokered by Egypt, and not by the Security Council, and that the possible Council ceasefire resolution was rejected by Israel, and not by the Palestinians. France was considering the possibility of putting forward a Security Council resolution, he said, welcoming the more constructive role being taken by the European Union, which was not waiting for the United States to lead.
Mr. GATT-RUTTER urged the Palestinian leadership to do more in terms of achieving unity. While refusing to prejudge the nature of the future Israeli Government, he said the European Union was working closely with all stakeholders: the Palestinians, Israelis, United States and key Arab States, namely the Egyptians, Jordanians and the Saudis. There was pressure to do something soon, but it would be difficult to devise something concrete that was acceptable to all parties.
Plenary II — Looking Ahead: Prioritizing Reconstruction Tasks; Part I ‘Resolving Gaza’s Severe Energy Deficit’
HAITHAM GHANEM, Project Manager for theSunshine4Palestine Association, based in Gaza, addressed the Seminar via Skype, explaining that he had not been granted authorization from the Israeli authorities to travel to Vienna. The Gaza Strip had been heavily affected by energy shortages since 2006, and private and public building, schools, public areas, streets and hospitals only had four to six hours of electricity per day. The unreliable services had a dramatic impact upon the provision of health care, among other services.
Mr. Ghanem briefed the Seminar on the possibilities of using photovoltaic plants to produce energy, stating that the plants were reliable and robust, lasted 30 years, produced a constant and predictable supply of energy and were eco-sustainable. The total cost of a Photovoltaic plant was comparable to that of powering a building 24/7 for less than one year using a petrol generator. The challenges related to such a power plant included energy storage, as Gaza did not have an accumulation point; the fact that off-grid systems were in general more expensive than on-grid systems; and that photovoltaic plants required large surfaces. He described the use of a photovoltaic plant to power the Jenin Charitable Hospital in Gaza, as well as the use of “trees of light” to illuminate public spaces, streets and refugee camps.
MICHAEL NEUWIRTH, a Coordination Officer with the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Jerusalem, spoke about the staff’s dedicated efforts to address Gaza’s many challenges and said progress on the energy and water sectors, including waste-water treatment and desalination, was practically a prerequisite for all other reconstruction efforts. The critical need for a structural solution to the energy crisis was nowhere more evident than in the case of the planned water infrastructure. Without increased and reliable energy supplies, the planned waste-water treatment plants and particularly the large-scale water desalination plant — without which Gaza’s aquifer might be irretrievably damaged by 2020 — were highly unlikely to materialize. In the short term, continued support for the Gaza power plant was needed; in the medium term, the import of electricity through high voltage lines was required; and in the long term, the key was conversion of the Gaza power plant to natural gas and the increased import of electricity from the Arab Regional Grid via Egypt and gas supplies from the offshore field.
The Palestinian Government, he added, was currently leading efforts to unlock the productive potential of Gaza’s offshore gas resources — the Gaza Marine field — which would likely be capable of supplying sufficient gas to the plant. He noted that the actual import of electricity over the Arab Regional Grid was complicated by the prevailing conditions in the Sinai and thus was not considered a medium-term option. Those steps should be addressed, regardless of the political context, if Gaza was not to lose all prospects of being a liveable place by 2020. Proactive international community engagement and support was indispensable.
SIMON HENDERSON, Director of the Gulf and Energy Program at the Washington Institute, referred to his March 2014 policy brief “Natural Gas in the Palestinian Authority: the Potential of the Gaza Marine Offshore Field”. The Gaza Marine was located 36 kilometres offshore, at a depth of 600 metres, and was comparatively easy to access. The investment needed to develop the Gaza Marine was roughly $800 million. The gas field was small, but still somewhat commercially viable, he said, adding that the amount of projected revenues involved varied between $2.4 billion to $7 billion over a 20-year lifespan of an extraction project. It was the largest single currently identified economic asset for the Palestinians. Indeed, the Gaza Marine had enough gas to fulfil the energy demands of the Gaza Strip, but it would be a stretch for it to also meet the energy demands of the West Bank. The question of how Gaza and Israel’s gas and electricity flows would be intermingled was key. The notion of gas and electricity “swapping” with Israel had already been agreed and should not be a business hurdle, although it might be a political one. According to experts, it was unlikely that any further gas fields would be found off Gaza’s shore. A payment system should be introduced in Gaza and the West Bank, which would be another political challenge to be faced.
Following those presentations, a number of participants took the floor, including the representative of Austria, who asked, with regard to the installation of renewable energy-generating systems such as wind power, how the challenges regarding transportation in the Gaza Strip could be resolved.
Another participant asked the speakers if they saw any political window of opportunity at the moment as Israel needed to sell its vast quantities of offshore natural gas; could an energy swap be envisioned? Another asked about coping strategies in the face of energy shortages, and whether Gaza’s energy problems could be traced to the blockade. One participant commented on the potential of solar power in Gaza, saying renewable energy might not be the only solution, but it should be considered, especially as it could be implemented very quickly. Small solutions in terms of renewable energy sources were the way forward rather than waiting for one big solution.
Responding to questions, Mr. NEUWIRTH said the Israeli position on energy conditions over the course of the last year had visibly shifted, which might be an indication that Israel realized that its position of disengagement with regard to energy in the Gaza Strip was untenable. Israel was becoming quite receptive in considering the possibilities of energy swaps, receiving natural gas and transferring electricity. There was now more of an opportunity than ever to achieve objectives relating to electricity and gas pipelines. Potential energy production in Gaza was limited, and it might well be more economically viable to import electricity, whether from Jordan or the Arab Regional Grid.
Mr. HENDERSON said the most logical way forward in regional terms for Israel was to supply gas to Egypt, both for potential use domestically by Egypt or to make use of under-utilized LNG plants in the Nile Delta, which could then be exported. The energy industry was concerned that anti-trust actions in Israel tied up offshore gas development and, thus, any potential deals involving Palestinians.