UN Palestinian refugee chief AbuZayd: "periods of hope have all been dashed"
External relations – 11-09-2009 – 12:48
Karen AbuZayd was appointed in 2005 as Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
Karen AbuZayd, the Head of the UN Agency that provides food, health and housing to millions of Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) was at the European Parliament Thursday (11 September). She was there to hold talks with Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In an exclusive interview she told us that 60 years of refugees status for the Palestinians is nothing to celebrate, of her concern over Israeli settlements and that "periods of hope…have all been dashed and things have got worse".
Q. UNRWA marks sixty years of existence this year. How much cause for celebration is there really?
KA: This is not a celebration at all. One cannot celebrate 60 years of refugees really. It's a sign of things not having gone well in solving the refugee problem because refugees only remain refugees if the political solution is not achieved.
We in the UNRWA say we are commemorating this 60th anniversary and use it as a means to call attention to the fact, firstly, that there are still Palestinian refugees after 60 years and secondly, to call attention to what the refugees themselves have achieved in spite of being refugees.
Q. In November 2008, you described the situation as "extremely bad in Gaza and the West bank and getting worse". A year on, what is the outlook for Palestinians, be they in Gaza, the West Bank or elsewhere?
KA: I can say the same thing. We had the Gaza conflict after that. Now we need major building materials in order to reconstruct what has been destroyed but no material is coming in due to the (Israeli) closures. We're spending so much money on job creation to give people work to do, small grants to people with minor damages. One can buy a bag of cement, or glass as small material is coming in small quantities through the tunnels. You can fix your window, as we can fix those of our own clinics or schools but…not the big stuff.
In the West bank there are some signs of economic recovery but that does not help the refugees, or people in camps, and those affected by the barrier or by the many obstacles. We can't say there is a thriving economy or people are free to exert any kind of economic activity.
Of course we're very worried about (Israeli) settlements, not just in West Bank where they continue to get approval but what is happening in East Jerusalem…evictions, replacement of refugees by settlers, confiscation of land and houses.
Q. The EU is the biggest donor of financial assistance to the Palestinians and Israel is a major trading partner. What more can the EU do to increase its contribution to the peace process in the Middle East?
KA: We believe the EU can exert much more influence on Israel. It has in fact the possibility to work with both sides. I guess we just ask to move things on both sides. It's difficult because there is resistance from both sides on moving ahead, on compromising, on accommodating another's point of view, on getting to the table to negotiate and understanding each other.
Q. You step down this year after 9 years, looking back at the time spent at UNRWA, which do you consider to be your main achievements?
KA: I arrived in the Agency before the second Intifada so we were at that time hoping that there would be peace, there were signs from Camp David and Tabgha to Lebanon. It has been a period of conflict, really, and increasing conflict. After the Intifada died down, we had the elections, there have been periods of hope but they have all been dashed and things got worse. And then a culmination of the worseness is what happened in January in Gaza
We are proud that we have had a reform to bring our organization more into line with other UN organizations, generally to open up particularly with our donors and hosts.
We have 30,000 "area staff", as we call them, and we brought them a lot more into management decisions, planning and training. I think they have been quite happy to be more part of the senior management and to have this kind of training so that brought more optimism in the organization.
Q. What do you expect from and wish for your successor?
KA: I wish him the best of luck (laughing) mainly because we are having so many financial problems now which are the result of, generally, the world economic situation.
We are also in the middle of the reform process but I hope he will carry on many of the good initiatives that we begun and that he will have the support of all the hosts' governments and refugees themselves and our staff particularly.
Background: United Nations Relief and Works Agency at 60
In December the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East will be sixty years old. Prior to this the UN will hold an international conference in New York to mark the anniversary.
However, whilst there is pride in the number of Palestinians who have been housed and fed over the last six decades, there is despair that the situation seems to be getting worse.
As UNRWA's latest appeal bleakly states: "is both regretful and shameful that Gaza’s refugees continue to live in intolerable circumstances. Seven months after the Israeli Operation Cast Lead and three years into a stifling siege, life for the 1 million refugees in Gaza – 70% of the population – is characterized by chronic unemployment, infrequent access to power and water, health hazards stemming from inadequate sewage system, and sub-standard housing."
Document Type: Interview
Document Sources: European Parliament, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
Subject: Assistance, Gaza Strip, Palestine question, Refugee camps, Refugees and displaced persons, Settlements
Publication Date: 11/09/2009