UNRWA’s work in the global context – Briefing by UNRWA Commissioner-General before the New Zealand Parliamentary Group

Briefing by UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd

UNRWA’s work in the global context

New Zealand Parliamentary Group
9 October 2007

Thank you for inviting me to share some time with you this morning. My remarks will give you a snapshot of the content and context of my Agency’s work. I will be brief so that we can have as much time as possible for an exchange of views.

Many of you will know that UNRWA’s mandate is to address the humanitarian and human development needs of Palestine refugees – a population that is now estimated at 4.4 million. We maintain operations in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza and we rely on the skills of some 28,000 staff, the majority of whom are Palestine refugees.

We run programmes in the areas of primary education, primary health care, relief and social services, microfinance and the improvement of infrastructure. In each of these sectors, we take a forward-looking human development approach that helps refugees to become self-reliant.

UNRWA’s primary schools serve approximately five hundred thousand refugee children, half of whom are girls. We have pioneered courses to promote human rights, tolerance and peaceful conflict resolution and we also offer vocational training programmes in each area of operations. Our health programme delivers comprehensive primary health care, and to a limited extent, hospitalization, cancer screening and other services. We have eradicated communicable diseases while achieving nearly a 100% record in childhood vaccinations. UNRWA’s relief services cater for refugees hardest hit by poverty, including widows, the elderly and the handicapped.

We build and repair refugee homes and provide sewerage, and environmental health services in our 58 refugee camps. Our microfinance programme provides financial assistance as well as advice and training to refugees and others who run small enterprises. And in emergency situations, often precipitated by armed conflict, we provide to refugees temporary employment, cash assistance, and food distribution.

We count among our most powerful operational assets our extensive field presence and the expertise and commitment of our 28,000 staff. We have intimate insights into the living conditions of refugees and the threats they face, and we draw on these insights in our role as a global advocate for the protection and care of Palestine refugees. We call the international community’s attention to the realities faced by Palestine refugees, including conditions that compromise their human dignity and violate their human rights.

From my account so far, you will have noticed that there is a strong public service character to UNRWA’s work. Unique among UN agencies, we exercise our mandate by providing services directly to refugees rather than through implementing partners. Our beneficiaries and stakeholders expect our services to be predictable and stable, and this creates tensions when budget shortfalls threaten the continuation or the quality of our services.

UNRWA is funded almost exclusively by voluntary contributions from States. While our donors have by and large kept faith with us over the years, chronic funding shortfalls have become a matter of serious concern. This year, we are grappling with a budget deficit of some 107 million dollars. Our 246 million dollar emergency appeal for Gaza and the West Bank in 2007 is only half funded, and we have received 17.5 million against our recently launched 55 million dollar appeal for emergency needs in Lebanon. Given our financial worries, the last year’s tripling of New Zealand’s contribution to UNRWA could not be more welcome.

Let me now turn to the situation facing Palestine refugees, bearing in mind that regardless of where they may reside, Palestine refugees are afflicted by the inherent vulnerability that is a mark of the refugee condition. They share a sense of dispossession and injustice. They are haunted by awareness that with the exception of those in Jordan, they have not been integrated in the communities that host them even as their exile approaches its sixtieth year. And Palestine refugees yearn for a solution to their plight – a solution that is just and durable.

In Jordan and Syria, Palestine refugees face less dramatic circumstances than those in the occupied territory or North Lebanon. There is nevertheless a need to raise their standard of living and expand their possibilities for economic self-reliance.

This past summer, 31,000 refugees were displaced from Nahr el-Bared camp in north Lebanon. For many of them, this was only the most recent of several encounters with armed conflict and forced displacement. The events reminded us that in times of national crisis, the distinct status of refugees can be accentuated in ways that could threaten their security. A preliminary safety assessment indicates that in an area of Nahr el-Bared we call the "new camp" about 65% of houses are war-damaged. This is not as bad as we first thought. While we are yet to assess the damage in the part of Nahr el-Bared known as the "old camp", indications are that the destruction was similar to or worse than the "new camp" sustained. It is clear that the reconstruction effort and the return of displaced refugees will require considerable time and money.

In the occupied Palestinian territory, Palestine refugees – and Palestinians as a whole – face the gravest conditions. Their standards of living are declining while, in the context of a remorseless occupation, grave violations of human rights have become a part of their lives. Poverty, unemployment, food insecurity and aid dependency have taken hold, and on their present trajectory, will soon reach unconscionable levels. In the West Bank, the lives of Palestinians are overrun by shocking restrictions. Some, like the separation barrier, checkpoints, and arbitrary arrests are starkly visible. Others, such as the permit regime and complex administrative processes are less apparent but no less destructive to normal Palestinian life. Families are split, and access to schools, hospitals, water and productive land is curtailed for many. Palestinian land is also being effectively expropriated.

The population of Israeli settlers on Palestinian land has grown from 126,000 in 1993 to some 450,000 in 2007, and the UN estimates that the settler population may reach half a million by the end of this year. More Palestinian land will be taken for infrastructure to support the settlements. One UN study found that 38% of West Bank land is taken up by an array of settlements, outposts, military bases, restricted military areas, settler roads and other security infrastructure.

In Gaza, a striking feature is the almost total segregation of a population of more than a million and a half people. You can well imagine the colossal pressure this isolation is exerting on Gaza’s economy, social cohesion and the well-being of its people. A handful of businessmen with permits can enter and leave Gaza, as can patients deemed to be in sufficiently life-threatening condition to require medical treatment in Israel, and staff of humanitarian agencies. Other Palestinians are prohibited from entering or leaving Gaza, including students offered places abroad. The economy is paralyzed by the closure since June of the main crossing for commercial goods. This closure has blocked 213 million dollars worth of humanitarian and construction programmes, of which 93 million dollars worth of projects are UNRWA’s alone.

The devastating internal conflict of the first six months of this year has been followed by calm on the streets of Gaza. This facilitates our work because our staff have fewer security concerns and can reach refugees more freely. Yet underneath the calm, there are undercurrents of uncertainly and apprehension among Palestinians. They are understandably fearful about what the future holds.

That is indeed the question: what does the future hold for Palestinians, refugees and non-refugees alike? The situation in the occupied Palestinian territory is eroding at an alarming rate the foundations for a viable Palestinian State. Only a rapid reversal of the status quo can return the dream of Palestinian statehood to the realm of the possible.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a quintessentially international challenge. This is due not only to the universal character of the self-determination and other questions that lie at its core. It is also because the conflict and a failure to resolve it for much longer will have wider regional and global implications. For these reasons, the precepts and standards of international law, including human rights and international humanitarian law should be given a more prominent place in Israeli-Palestinian discourse. This is essential to ensure the protection of Palestinian and Israeli civilians and restore the freedoms Palestinians have lost under the occupation. It is clear that it would be futile to pursue lasting peace in an atmosphere of sustained and grave violations.

The international nature of the issues also speaks to the need for broader multilateral engagement in addressing Palestinian issues and in the search for peace. Historically, the international community has tacitly allowed relatively few States of similar orientation to lead thought and action on the Israeli Palestinian issue.

Given the vast asymmetry between the leverage of the respective parties, the involvement of relatively few States has not augured well for an unbiased and objective approach the issues. This has been particularly the case in instances where the parties need to be held to account for violations and where a more equitable balance needs to be struck between the valid security concerns of Israel and the protection of Palestinian interests. What may be required is the introduction of international players genuinely prepared to take forthright public positions on holding the parties to account for compliance with the rule of international law and on injecting equilibrium into the extent to which the parties’ rights and interests are taken into account.

Thus far, inclusiveness and even-handedness have not been the strongest suit of the international approach to Palestinian issues. The forthcoming conference in November could be an important milestone at which there is a departure from policies of isolation. It will be a chance for the international community to demonstrate that it is capable of delivering on its promises to Palestinians. It is an opportunity for the international community to facilitate Palestinian reconciliation and to restore the unity of the occupied Palestinian territory. Without this unity, any future agreement will be built on a fractured foundation.

An end to violence could be rooted in an acknowledgement of the shared interests that bind Palestinians and Israelis, not least in the security arena. The security of States in the region is inextricably linked to the protection and well-being of Palestinians. For this reason, arguments of State security cannot justify human rights violations, and no State can achieve true security in isolation from its neighbours. Given the network of shared interests in the region, the ultimate guarantee of State security is the safety, economic self-sufficiency and protection of people within and around it.

This is the time for Palestinian leaders to show that the maturity and political courage required for principled compromises. Their focus must remain on tackling isolation, poverty, and economic collapse, and on the only victory that really matters, namely, the end of occupation, a just solution to the plight of Palestine refugees and the establishment of a viable Palestinian State.


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