Speech of UNRWA Commissioner-General

EU Parliament Foreign Affairs and Development Committees

Brussels, 10 September 2009

Distinguished Chairs, your Excellencies:

It is a pleasure to meet and exchange views with a joint session of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Development Committees. This particular occasion has special significance for me, personally, as at the end of 2009 I shall complete my tenure as UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, having served the Agency since August 2000, initially as Deputy Commissioner-General.

In the decades before I joined UNRWA and through my years at its helm, one fact has stood out – we could not wish for more generous, more reliable or more engaged allies than the EU, the EC and the European Parliament. The European Union, its member States and its institutions are our largest donors. The financial and in-kind support you furnish remain indispensable to UNRWA’s ability to fulfill its humanitarian and human development mandate in the interests of 4.6 million Palestine refugees.

The critical roles the EU plays go well beyond material assistance. You make available technical expertise for implementing, coordinating and evaluating UNRWA’s programmes. As active members of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission, you help oversee financial and programme management, reforms and policy development, thus advancing our efforts to become more effective. And you offer to Palestinians, and Palestine refugees, more general support, including on the international political and diplomatic scene. Without the backing of Europe and its member states, UNRWA could not be the positive force it is today throughout the Middle East.

My remarks this morning will share perspectives on UNRWA’s financial and operational challenges and outline aspects of the Palestinian condition from the vantage point of UNRWA’s sixty years of experience in the region. Allow me to begin with a very brief outline of UNRWA’s mission and operational profile.

In 2008, Palestinians marked the sixtieth year of their exile. This year, UNRWA commemorates the sixtieth year of its creation. UNRWA’s mandate is to assist and protect Palestine refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, until such time as their plight is justly resolved.

We currently blend humanitarian and human development functions in five main programme areas. In the field of education, we employ some 16,000 teachers in 683 elementary and preparatory schools and run ten vocational and technical training centers. Primary health care is delivered through 138 clinics handling several million patient visits a year. UNRWA implements social safety-net activities, infrastructure and camp improvement projects and microfinance interventions. We also maintain emergency response capabilities during and following armed conflict and humanitarian crises. Our food aid programmes benefit approximately 1.2 million people, the majority of whom reside in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Unlike most UN agencies, UNRWA offers its services directly to refugees, while coordinating and harmonizing its functions with those of host countries and authorities. Our services contribute not only to human security, but also to stability and calm in refugee communities.

UNRWA’s uniqueness, however, remains consistent with its core identity as a UN agency operating under the guidance of the General Assembly and in harmony with the principles and purposes of the UN Charter. In particular, we promote, in refugee communities, the values of neutrality, impartiality, tolerance for diversity, non-violence and respect for the human rights of all.

Your Excellencies,

I understand that financial and budgetary matters are very much on your minds as you enter a critical phase of negotiating the European Commission budget for 2010. I take this opportunity to call to your attention the parlous state of UNRWA’s finances. And I appeal to you to come to our aid by raising the already remarkable levels of support you provide.

UNRWA is experiencing budget deficits in all three of its budget lines, namely, the General Fund, our Emergency Appeals and the project budget. At this time, however, projections for the General Fund give cause for heightened anxiety.

Our financial difficulties are the cumulative result of a combination of factors, among them unfavourable regional and economic patterns and high food and fuel costs. The scale and complexity of refugee needs have grown as the population has expanded. UNRWA’s expenditures have risen sharply as we struggle to maintain the quality of its services, to satisfy intensifying stakeholder demands for more effective programmes and to meet the salary requirements of our 29,000 staff. Although donor contributions have recently increased in absolute terms, reflecting donor confidence in UNRWA, they have been outstripped by the pace of upward trends in operational expenditure.

The resulting shortfall threatens UNRWA’s ability to sustain existing service levels and renders impossible efforts to improve services. The estimated gap for 2009 is $84 million, of which $16.3 million represents direct operational costs.

In light of this serious vulnerability, I appeal to you to respond to UNRWA’s call for extraordinary assistance. I call on you to help us avoid the dire funding scenario we will otherwise face in the coming years. By so doing, you will strengthen UNRWA’s – and the international community’s – hand in taking forward our mission of helping refugees lead dignified lives while serving as a calming presence across the region.

Distinguished members,

I shall now briefly outline the situation in each of UNRWA’s fields of operation. In Jordan and Syria, the refugees are fortunate to enjoy a secure and stable environment. Even in these countries, economic opportunities remain out of reach of many refugees, not least because UNRWA lacks the resources to assist them towards self-reliance.

In Lebanon, the difficult circumstances Palestine refugees have long faced confer particular value on the stabilizing impact of UNRWA’s work. Besides freedom of movement, access to employment and decent living conditions in the camps, the most pressing concern is the reconstruction of Nahr El Bared camp which was destroyed in the summer of 2007, and the care of 30,000 refugees who were displaced as a consequence. Given the direct relevance to refugees’ rights and to the stability of northern Lebanon, it is critical that the international community fully responds to our appeal for $277 million to re-build Nahr El Bared, $67.3 million of which has been pledged so far.

In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestine refugees, who comprise nearly half the population, confront grave threats to their lives, liberty and livelihoods. These threats, which have intensified over the course of the past three years, emanate from both Israeli and internal Palestinian sources. On the one side is Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank since 1967, its overall policies towards Palestinians, the recurrent cycles of armed conflict and the closure regimes currently in place. On the other side is the insecurity and uncertain future stemming from hostility between Fatah and Hamas. The result is a situation in which Palestinians and Palestine refugees exist in an abnormal, precarious state.

Gaza’s borders remain closed to the free flow of people and commercial, humanitarian and construction supplies. The closure’s stifling consequences are very much in evidence in the moribund economy, minimal public services, unemployment and human insecurity.

The blockade frustrates the reconstruction and recovery effort for which some $5 billion was pledged at Sharm El Sheik last March and renders almost entirely aid-dependent the 1.1 million Gazans now receiving food assistance.

In the interests of Palestinians and of regional and international security, it is imperative that these artificial conditions of exclusion and imposed poverty be reversed. An open access regime and greater freedoms for Palestinians are essential for creating an atmosphere in which the forces of compromise, moderation and tolerance are encouraged and strengthened.

In the West Bank, the separation barrier and its associated obstacles and administrative restrictions continue to starve the economy, placing normal life out of the reach of many Palestinians. House demolitions and confiscations, notably in East Jerusalem, frequent arrest and detention campaigns and violent attacks by settlers are regular features of Palestinian life. In East Jerusalem and elsewhere, Israeli settlements are but one part of an intricate web of measures that whittle away the living space and resources available to Palestinians.

After more than forty years of Israeli occupation, and notwithstanding recent reports of improvements in economic and security indicators, the West Bank remains splintered to a point where its integrity as a viable economic and social unit is deeply compromised. This has obvious repercussions for the quality of a prospective negotiated settlement. The immediate question is whether these fraught, fragmented conditions will allow the West Bank, with Gaza, to serve as the foundation for a viable Palestinian State.

Your Excellencies,

The situation of Palestinians and Palestine refugees flies in the face of all the lofty principles of humanity we espouse as members of the United Nations and of the European Union. In full view of the international community, Palestinians endure forms of oppression that violate every precept of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Nevertheless, the fact that this conflict has defied resolution for over sixty years must not diminish our resolve to address it, or distract us from the rich potential for positive change.

Since early this year, the President of the United States has led a refreshing turnaround in the approach to these issues. His words have inspired belief in the possibilities of peace among all who are weary of war in the Middle East. And his forthright stance on the construction of settlements indicates a readiness to address a major aspect of the Israeli occupation.

While the new posture of the US could not be more welcome, the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demand that the promises of inspiring words be followed by concrete action. The wretched conditions Palestinians face must be reversed. Their dignity must be restored, and a credible negotiation process reinstated. Allow me to draw on my experience of living and working in Gaza for the past nine years, to suggest some requirements that are fundamental to renewing the prospects for tomorrow.

An important consideration is the need for States and political actors to act in concert, particularly in holding both sides to their international obligations. The leading role traditionally played by the US must be complemented by other major actors to ensure that maximum, unified leverage is brought to bear on both sides. Europe, with its resources, global clout and historical ties to the region is well placed to play an even larger role than it does at present.

A primary prerequisite for a credible, effective negotiation process is its ability to command confidence across the Palestinian rank and file. For this reason, a further need is for future processes of dialogue and negotiation to embrace the major constituencies within the Palestinian body politic. An inclusive approach will ensure that Palestinians see themselves and their interests reflected in the process. It will also pay dividends in enhancing the likelihood of negotiation outcomes being accepted.

Closely related to the requirement of an inclusive negotiation process is the imperative of investing in efforts to heal the intra-Palestinian rift. The Fatah-Hamas divide is more entrenched than ever, a threat to the Palestinian cause and to the durability of any negotiation process. The old adage, "a house divided against itself cannot stand" has a chilling resonance to the current hostility within the Palestinian camp. The perils of this impasse should be acknowledged more candidly, and the necessary resources and pressure invested to help the ‘warring’ sides towards an accommodation – if not a reconciliation.

Another requirement relates to the issues to be addressed in negotiations. The lessons of the past and the realities of the Palestinian condition suggest that a comprehensive negotiation agenda may help to advance the process. The current emphasis on halting Israeli settlements must be complemented by attention to the variety of outstanding issues – the release of Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit, the strictures of closure, blockade and lack of humanitarian access and the systematic demolition and/or confiscation of Palestinian homes and structures. Credible efforts to resolve these and other human rights related questions will go a long way to create an atmosphere that enhances the prospects of dialogue.

From the standpoint of UNRWA’s mandate, I place particular emphasis on the need to reflect seriously in any negotiation process the interests and concerns of Palestine refugees. Issues of refugee return and settlement are especially complex in the Palestinian context. Accordingly, the principles of informed choice must serve as the basis for clarifying refugee expectations and the rights attached to choices the refugees themselves might make. Ensuring that the refugee voice is heard and refugee choice ascertained and respected will ensure that the outcome of any dialogue or negotiated settlement will benefit from the understanding – if not the full support – of the refugee constituency, and will thus be accorded the credibility required to stand the test of time.

Your Excellencies,

I am of the firm conviction that this conflict and the condition of Palestinians and Palestine refugees can and must be resolved. The cry for peace, so powerful among millions of ordinary Palestinians, must not go unheeded for much longer. To respond to that cry, States and political actors must remain open to the possibilities that exist amidst the harsh realities, and seize the opportunities that have been overlooked over the years.

Europe is well placed to be a catalyst and agent of positive change. In addition to the resources and the international authority you have at your command, and your unstinting support for UNRWA, you bring to the Israeli-Palestinian table your own experience of emerging from decades of armed conflict and deep divisions to become a united continent in which human rights, prosperity and the rule of law flourish. It is to such a transformation that Palestinians and Palestine refugees aspire. For our own sake, as much as theirs, let us work together to realize their ultimate vision of a viable State of Palestine, thriving in peace and security with its neighbours.