Don’t Forget Palestinians as Attention Turns to Other Conflicts, Says Indonesia’s Delegate, as General Debate Concludes
Palestine refugees had suffered unimaginable hardship, including obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian aid, and those in Syria had been twice displaced, the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) heard today as it concluded its general debate on the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Many delegations voiced concerns about the Agency’s difficult financial situation as well as the volatile environment in which it worked. Switzerland’s representative emphasized the obligation of all parties to conflict to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need. The Agency’s services were an investment in the future of Palestine refugees and in the region’s security, he said, expressing concern over UNRWA’s structural funding gap.
Iceland’s representative added that it was imperative that the United Nations and major donors find a sustainable solution to the issue of Palestine refugees so that the Agency would not have to exist from hand to mouth. The conflict in Syria had brought bloodshed and destruction upon them, he said, pointing out, however, that they had fewer coping mechanisms than their Syrian counterparts and faced severe restrictions on their ability to travel out of the country.
In similar vein, the Russian Federation’s representative noted that Palestine refugees in Syria were suffering twice the hardship of others affected by the conflict there, adding that it was difficult to imagine the fate of Palestinians living in the Yarmouk camp – captured by terrorists belonging to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) – had it not been for UNRWA.
Syria’s representative cited UNRWA’s reports that terrorist groups were obstructing its ability to deliver assistance to the Yarmouk camp, which demonstrated their responsibility for obstructing aid delivery. Syria would make every effort to protect Palestine refugees living on its territory, even in the face of attacks by armed terrorist groups, which had invaded camps, taken refugees as human shields and looted their property, he emphasized.
Lebanon’s representative said her country had witnessed the severe impact of reduced UNWRA services and urged donors to cover in full the Agency’s appeal for the basic humanitarian needs of Palestine refugees fleeing Syria. The Security Council must do more to ensure resumption of the Middle East peace process, on the basis of the parameters set out in the Madrid Principles, the Arab Peace Initiative and the relevant United Nations resolutions, she stressed.
Underlining the importance of addressing the root causes of population displacement, Indonesia’s representative said the question of Palestine seemed to be turning into a permanent problem, in light of Israel’s increasingly aggressive and intensive settlement of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. As attention shifted to other conflicts, Indonesia appealed to Member States not to forget Palestine refugees.
Other speakers today included representatives of Kuwait, South Africa, Tunisia, Cuba, Bangladesh, Brazil, Turkey, Qatar, Sudan, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Bahrain, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. An observer for the Holy See also addressed the Committee.
The Commissioner-General of UNRWA delivered concluding remarks.
Speaking in exercise of the right of reply were representatives of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Ecuador and Syria, as well as an observer for the State of Palestine.
The Fourth Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 8 November, to take up outstanding draft resolutions.
Continuing its consideration of the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the Committee had before it a number of related reports (documents A/71/13, A/71/350, A/71/343, A/71/340 and A/71/335). See Press Release GA/SPD/626 of 2 November for more information.
OLIVIER ZEHNDER (Switzerland), voicing concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation and the highly volatile environment in which UNRWA was working, emphasized the obligation of all parties to conflict to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need. In light of the ongoing deterioration of the region’s security, political and socioeconomic situation, the risk of isolated and distressed people becoming radicalized was high, he cautioned while stressing the stabilizing role played by the Agency. Its services were an investment in the future of Palestine refugees and in the region’s security, he said, expressing concern about UNRWA’s structural funding gap.
ABDULAZIZ ALJARALLAH (Kuwait) called for more creative and innovative ways in which Palestine refugees could benefit from UNRWA’s regular budget during the funding crisis, noting that the situation was also complex for host countries. He also called upon the international community to put an end to Palestinian suffering and to exert pressure on Israel, the occupying Power, to respect decisions made under international law. The international community must also provide UNRWA with assistance, he said, emphasizing that it could not leave young Palestinians without hope for their future, since that could prove to be the catalyst for inciting them towards ill-conceived ends. Kuwait had provided the Agency with $15 million to prevent the closing of its schools, and $34 million to Palestinians in Gaza after the start of the blockade and the destruction of 36 schools by the occupying forces, he said, adding that his country had also contributed to the Cairo International Conference on reconstructing Gaza in 2014.
WOUTER HOFMEYR ZAAYMAN (South Africa) emphasized the pride of his country’s Government in its continuing financial support for UNRWA. That notwithstanding, the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Gaza in particular, was dire, and it was therefore important that the international community remain committed to assisting the Palestinian people by providing financial support to the Agency. He further stressed the urgent need to lift the blockade on Gaza in order to rejuvenate the enclave’s stricken economy, expressing particular concern about its effect on the fisheries industry, which could potentially create jobs and economic growth.
RIADH BEN SLIMAN (Tunisia), associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, said that UNRWA continued to face financial and operational challenges as the continuing turmoil in the region placed increasing demands on the Agency to deliver services amid harsh restrictions on the movement of people, goods and services. More than a quarter of Palestinian households lived in poverty and half a million school children were in need of quality education, he noted. Describing Israel’s occupation as the root cause of the problem, he said it was time for the Security Council to shoulder its responsibility and put an end to it.
HUMBERTO RIVERO ROSARIO (Cuba), associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, noted that UNRWA’s financial crisis had hindered the opening of 700 schools. Its report underscored the various setbacks it faced in carrying out its work, including growing violence, insecurity and despair among the community of Palestine refugees. Nevertheless, the Agency had achieved positive results in education and health care, in spite of those difficulties. Noting that the occupation had limited the free movement of UNRWA personnel and hindered access to work areas, he emphasized the need to end the restrictions. Cuba reaffirmed its unequivocal solidarity with the Palestinian people and advocated for an end to the protracted, unjust and illegal occupation of their territories, he stressed.
CAROLINE ZIADÉ (Lebanon) emphasized that one of the largest and most protracted cases of conflict and refugees should not be forgotten: 5.2 million Palestine refugees. They had benefited from services provided by UNRWA, but the Agency’s existence and ability to deliver were in jeopardy due to the chronic funding shortfall. The international community should ensure UNWRA’s financial stability and increase the predictability of its resources. Noting that her country was the host of more than 400,000 Palestine refugees, representing 10 per cent of its population, she said Lebanon had witnessed the severe impact of reduced UNWRA services on Palestine refugees and their host communities. Urging donors to cover in full UNRWA’S humanitarian appeal for the basic humanitarian needs of Palestine refugees fleeing Syria, which was $414 million for 2016, she stressed that the Security Council must do more to ensure the resumption of the peace process on the basis of the parameters set out in the Madrid Principles, the Arab Peace Initiative and the relevant United Nations resolutions.
MASUD BIN MOMEN (Bangladesh), associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, expressed grave concern over the safety and security of UNRWA staff, emphasizing that there could be no justification for killing and abducting United Nations personnel serving on the ground. The heightened vulnerabilities of Palestine refugees living in Syria deserved additional attention, and the Agency needed sufficient resources to respond to growing needs for humanitarian and emergency services, but it now faced a shortfall of approximately $74 million, he noted. Urging international donors to continue their support for the cause of Palestine refugees by providing increased, predictable and sustainable resources for UNRWA’s operations, he said that, as a country that had experienced a large-scale refugee crisis during its war of liberation, Bangladesh felt full empathy and solidarity with the protracted plight of Palestine refugees around the world.
EINAR GUNNARSSON (Iceland) said it was regrettable that the Committee was once again spending the bulk of its time on the Agency’s financial situation, rather than discussing its good works. The conflict in Syria had brought bloodshed and destruction upon Palestine refugees as well as other members of Syrian society, he said, pointing out that they had fewer coping mechanisms than their Syrian counterparts and faced severe restrictions on their ability to travel out of the country.
MOUNZER MOUNZER (Syria), speaking on a point of order, said the agenda item under discussion concerned UNRWA, not the situation in Syria. Hopefully, speakers would limit their remarks to that item.
HOSSEIN MALEKI (Iran), Committee Vice-Chair, asked delegates to speak within the framework of today’s agenda item.
Mr. GUNNARSSON (Iceland), resuming his statement, noted that 41,000 Palestine refugees who had fled the conflict in Syria by crossing into Lebanon were particularly vulnerable, given restrictions on the border, their precarious legal status and limited social protection services. UNRWA’s financial situation – although not as dire as it had been in 2015 - remained extremely precarious, and it was imperative that the United Nations and major donors find a sustainable solution so that the Agency would not have to exist from hand to mouth.
MOUNZER MOUNZER (Syria), associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, paid tribute to UNRWA and its Commissioner-General for their valuable support in alleviating the suffering of millions of Palestine refugees, caused by Israel’s occupation and its denial of the Palestinian right of return to their homeland. Several decades had passed since the General Assembly’s adoption of resolution 194 in 1948, yet the United Nations had been unable to implement it as well as other related texts, he noted. Arab countries were not only hosting their Palestinian brethren, but also providing them with significant assistance, he said, adding that his country had received Palestine refugees as brothers and given them every support.
He said that Syria would make every effort to protect Palestine refugees living on its territory, even in the face of attacks by armed terrorist groups, including Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), Al Nusrah and other armed outfits known for their foreign affiliations. Those armed groups had invaded camps, taken refugees as human shields and looted their property. On repeated occasions, UNRWA had said that terrorist groups were obstructing its ability to deliver assistance to the Yarmouk camp, which demonstrated their responsibility for obstructing aid delivery. The suffering of Palestine refugees was part and parcel of a hidden agenda to scatter them so that their right of return would be lost. Several delegates had experienced a strange feeling when hearing their counterpart from Israel refer to the Agency’s operations in Syria, he said, underlining that Israel alone was responsible for the plight of Palestine refugees, and reiterating Syria’s support for resolution 194.
INA KRISNAMURTHI (Indonesia) emphasized that United Nations entities such as UNRWA and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should never be without the required funding. Measures were needed to make humanitarian funding more flexible and predictable, with less ear-marking and more multi-year funding. Stressing the importance of addressing the root causes of population displacement, including Israel’s continuing occupation, she said the question of Palestine seemed to be turning into a permanent problem, given Israel’s increasingly aggressive and intensive settlement of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. As attention shifted to other conflicts, Indonesia appealed to Member States not to forget Palestine refugees.
CARLOS DUARTE (Brazil) said UNRWA’s crucial work remained under pressure while there was no visible progress towards a two-State solution. The recent wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians had exacerbated the challenges faced by the Agency, while the conflict in Syria had forced thousands of Palestinians to seek shelter in Lebanon, Jordan and Brazil, he noted. The unprecedented financial crisis impacting UNRWA was a cause of deep concern, because the Agency needed sufficient funding to carry out its activities, he said, adding that a greater share of the Agency’s funding should come from the regular United Nations budget in order to address the funding shortfall. On the impending extension of UNRWA’s mandate, he said: “Let us hope that soon these renewals will no longer be necessary.”
CEREN HANDE OZGUR (Turkey), while expressing deep appreciation for the UNRWA’s efforts, said the expanding refugee population was putting more pressure on the Agency day by day, and its vital functions continued to be threatened by the insufficiency of resources. As Chair of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA, Turkey emphasized the need to change the approach to UNRWA’s finances, she said, emphasizing that such a change must entail long-term financial commitments by Member States, innovative funding and the widening of UNRWA’s donor base. Turkey was providing $1.5 million for UNRWA in 2016, and had provided 58,500 tonnes of flour since 2011, she said, stressing that its contributions would continue.
SALMAN MAHMOUD AL NEAMA (Qatar) said that UNRWA’s basic services, such as health care, education, food assistance and housing, allowed refugees to enjoy fundamental human rights as well as a certain level of development and well-being. The Agency also offered refugees protection, which was essential when facing the challenges they encountered because of conflicts arising from the occupation and increased violence in Gaza. Noting that the Agency continued to experience gaps in financing, he emphasized the crucial need for greater efficiency and commended its staff and leadership for having followed through on its medium-term strategy. Qatar had responded to various calls during the 2013 Pledging Conference, committing $5 million over five years, especially for education, rebuilding and restoration of housing and infrastructure, he said, while reminding the international community of its responsibility to refugees and calling upon Governments and institutions to provide voluntary contributions.
Mr. IDRISS (Sudan), associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, expressed concern about the critical situation in which the refugees lived. While the occupying forces continued to commit abuses against them, they faced armed conflict, forced displacement, as well as the threats of poverty and despair, which had already been catastrophic, but were being exacerbated by the situation in Syria. He called for an end to the blockade on Gaza and condemned the occupying Power’s imposition of restrictions on the movements of UNRWA personnel. The Agency was working in an extremely difficult context, and financing was a difficult issue, with the $74 million deficit for 2016 undermining its efforts, he said.
KAZUFUMI AOKI (Japan) said the role of UNRWA in assisting Palestine refugees was more important than ever, given the recurring conflicts in Gaza and the deteriorating situation in Syria. While expressing appreciation for its efforts on the ground, and condolences for those who had lost their lives in the line of duty, he said that he was, at the same time, happy to note that the Government of Japan had made its largest-ever contribution to UNRWA over the past two years. While the world focused on humanitarian crises in other regions, it was important not to forget the plight of Palestine refugees, he emphasized. Japan appreciated the role that the Agency played in maintaining stability in the region, and looked forward to providing further assistance as the international community pursued a lasting solution.
SHARRINA ABDULLAH (Malaysia) commended UNRWA’s efforts to ensure decent living standards and opportunities for Palestine refugees so that they could rebuild their lives amid repeated cycles of conflict in Gaza, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Syria. Encouraged by the Agency’s success in educating more than 500,000 children, providing 9.1 million primary-health consultations, distributing cash and food to 294,000 persons, she also underscored its work on gender equality. Malaysia welcomed the endorsements by Jordan, Lebanon and the State of Palestine of the Safe Schools Declaration, which was intended to improve the protection of students, teachers and education facilities, she said. Malaysia commended the Agency for having broadened its donor base and nurtured ties with emerging markets, also expressing support for its appeal to Member States for enhanced financial contributions.
DAVID YARDLEY (Australia), warning that UNRWA’s viability could be threatened unless its deficit was addressed as a matter of priority, said it was essential that it reach out to new or non-traditional donors as well as private sources in order to broaden its donor base. An assessment by the Government of Australia of the Agency’s performance over the past five years confirmed that it was an effective partner, delivering key services and a commitment to undertake reforms, he said, adding that, on that basis, the Government had approved A$80 million in funding for UNRWA from 2016 to 2020. Ultimately, however, the future of Palestine refugees must come through a political solution, he emphasized, encouraging the parties to resume negotiations on a two-State solution.
FAISAL ALZAYANI MOFA (Bahrain) said the Commissioner-General had tried to shed light on various options for UNRWA to move forward in its noble endeavour. Reforms would enable the Agency to work more efficiently and to have a greater impact on the ground, he said, adding that it was also committed to diversifying its donor base. However, there was a need to bridge UNRWA’s funding gap, despite the austerity measures that the United Nations system had adopted in recent years. The Agency had been intended as a temporary solution, he noted, yet it remained in place, helping to find solutions to the problems faced by Palestine refugees.
IDRISS BOUASSILA (Algeria), associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, deplored Israel’s continuing policy of restricting the movement of UNRWA staff. The Agency faced a chronic funding deficit although it was providing vital support to more than 5.2 million people. He called upon the international community to shoulder its responsibility to fill the deficit and seek a financial solution for UNRWA. Algeria also condemned Israel’s illegal settlement policies, which represented an attempt to create a situation of “fait accompli” in the region, undermining prospects for a two-State solution.
MIKAEL AGASANDYAN (Russian Federation) said UNRWA had been entrusted with the fate of refugees who had become hostage to the conflict, adding that his country had supported the Agency through one-time contributions in 2013 and 2015. It had continued to call for adequate financing for UNRWA during discussions in the administrative and budgetary bodies of the General Assembly. It had also provided direct humanitarian assistance to the refugees, including 150 educational scholarships to Palestinians who were currently studying in the Russian Federation. Palestine refugees in Syria were suffering twice the hardship, he said, adding that it was difficult to imagine the fate of Palestinians living in the Yarmouk camp – captured by ISIL/Da’esh terrorists – had it not been for UNRWA. Noting that the Agency had been able to maintain a balanced and unbiased position, for many years, avoiding the politicization of its efforts, he said that supporting its work would advance the Middle East peace process on an international legal basis in the interests of a two-State solution. The Russian Federation continued to work with interested regional States in an effort to restore the situation through diplomatic and political means.
ABDALLAH AL-MOUALLIMI (Saudi Arabia) said his country was proud to support the Palestinian people, who had a right to dignity and other inalienable and legitimate rights. Pointing out that Saudi Arabia was at the forefront of UNRWA donors, alongside the United States, European Union and the United Kingdom, he said it had contributed around $100 million in 2016, detailing the kingdom’s contributions to education and health care. He called upon the international community to support the Agency by providing it with the necessary financial support. The plight of the Palestinians would not end until Israel ceased its breaches of international law, halted its settlement activity and settler violence, and withdrew from the lands it had occupied since 1967, so that the Palestinians could have their own sovereign State, with East Jerusalem as its capital, he said.
DAVID CARROLL, observer for the Holy See, noted that UNRWA’s areas of responsibility included territories of “the ancient Christian heartland” where Christians had been part of the region’s culture and history, alongside other ethnic and religious groups, for two millennia. Greatly reduced in number, they were today among the refugees served by the Agency, having been forced by violent persecution to leave their homes. Like UNRWA, the Catholic Church provided health care, education and social services to all internally displaced persons and refugees in need, irrespective of creed, he said, adding that the works of the Holy See in the region were donor-driven, as were those of the Agency. Renewing the Holy See’s support for a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of the city of Jerusalem, he emphasized that such a solution should ensure freedom of religion and conscience for all inhabitants, as well as secure, free and unhindered access to the holy places for the followers of all religions and nationalities. “Accessible humanitarian assistance for refugees and internally displaced must replace the current flood of weapons inundating the region from all over the globe,” he stressed.
Right of Reply
The representative of Saudi Arabia, speaking in exercise of the right of reply, expressed surprise over the intervention by her counterpart from Ecuador, and rejected her statement about the long-term cooperation between her country and UNRWA. Many other statements had been made, including by the Agency’s Commissioner-General, its Director of Operations in Gaza and others about the importance of Saudi Arabia’s partnership with UNRWA and its constant support, she noted, urging Ecuador to take that reality into account and expressing hope that the statement had been an error on the delegate’s part.
The observer for the State of Palestine, in response to Israel, emphasized that the right of Palestine refugees to return to their homes was not anachronistic. That right was not exclusive to some people, she said, adding that policies denying Palestine refugees that right were discriminatory and illegal. A State that clung to a past of 3,000 years to justify its actions could not deny the Palestinian people a past of less than 70 years, she stressed, asking how it could justify severing their connection to their ancestral homeland. Underlining that Israel’s decisions, policies and practices aimed at demographic purity or privilege had no place in the civilized world, she they were legally and morally bankrupt, deemed racist, apartheid policies in other parts of the world. Injustice was injustice, and justice was the only remedy, not empty words and certainly not more violence. To claim that Palestinian people and their leadership did not want peace or were not committed to the peace process was disingenuous, she said. Israel’s propagation of false claims demonstrated its unwillingness to make a rights-based peace, in accordance with international law.
The representative of Israel, responding to Syria’s statement, said she was incredulous that her country was being blamed for that country’s situation. The Syrian Government was systematically killing its own people and starving the Palestinian community in Yarmouk to death, she noted. Regarding the Board of Inquiry, she recalled that the Secretary-General had expressed dismay that Hamas had placed United Nations schools at risk by using them to hide their weapons. It had also conducted hostile activities that intentionally endangered civilian lives by using them as human shields. In response to the State of Palestine, she said there was no substitute for direct negotiations, and that was the only way to realize a two-State solution.
The representative of Ecuador, responding to Saudi Arabia, said there had been a misunderstanding or error, and welcomed further discussion. Ecuador’s representative had not mentioned the paragraph of the Secretary-General’s report cited by her counterpart from Saudi Arabia, and had instead mentioned the paragraph on the Vienna Convention. Ecuador applauded Saudi Arabia’s support for UNRWA, she stressed, expressing hope that the clarification of the misunderstanding had been helpful.
The representative of Syria said he was not surprised by the statements made by the occupying Power’s delegate yesterday and today, adding that she had spilled crocodile tears over the suffering of the Palestinians. As for Israel’s efforts to rebuild Gaza, he said its gifts to Gaza’s children included thousands of rocket attacks and aggressive actions.
The representative of Saudi Arabia thanked her counterpart from Ecuador for her clarification.
PIERRE KRÄHENBÜHL, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, thanked delegates for their comments, expressions of support and condolences for Agency staff who had been killed. It was encouraging to see a renewed focus on Palestine refugees, he said, recalling that, appearing before the Fourth Committee for the first time two years ago, much of the focus had been on the efficiency and reforms needed to curtail expenditure. Since then, it had been acknowledged that the Agency had “rolled up its sleeves” and addressed outstanding issues. Now it faced the paradox of a recurrent deficit, he said, adding that a paradigm shift was required. Noting that UNRWA national staff were the only national personnel across the United Nations system to be paid against local comparators. That might make sense in regional terms, but when local staff compared themselves to counterparts in large United Nations agencies, who were paid against international comparators, it became an issue of fairness that concerned them very much, particularly when UNRWA was being asked to make greater financial-management efforts.
Turning to comments by Israel’s delegate, he emphasized: “Refugees are refugees. This is anchored in international law and it cannot be addressed by placing inverted commas around the word.” The right to return was contained in resolution 194, and was not a demand to return, he said, adding that the Commissioner-General took responsibility for remarks made by the Agency’s spokesman. Underlining the importance of addressing “the other” in education, he noted that 90 per cent of students in Gaza had never left the enclave in their lifetimes and that most had never even seen an Israeli. Very similar trends existed among Israeli youth, few of whom had met a Palestinian. It was a mystery how that could be a basis for future interaction, he said, stressing that addressing that matter was a collective responsibility. The environment within which children grew up in the Gaza Strip was hardly conducive to increased tolerance, he pointed out.
He went on to say it was a matter of public record that Hamas had fired rockets from the immediate vicinity of UNRWA installations, but not from the installations themselves. It was essential to find a just and lasting solution, he said, emphasizing that no amount of humanitarian aid or development assistance could make up for the denial of rights and dignity anywhere in the world. International action to bring about a political solution was needed. UNRWA did not have a political mandate, but it was dealing with growing human costs and would continue, with support and encouragement, to live up to its mandate from the General Assembly, he said in conclusion.