Statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General

HLWG, Geneva, 7 September 2009

Distinguished Chair, your Excellencies:

I am very pleased to join your session this morning. UNRWA, with its regionally circumscribed operations, is often not well known outside the Middle East. For this reason, my remarks will offer a brief sketch of UNRWA’s work and the situation facing Palestinians and Palestine refugees in our areas of operation. I shall also share my thoughts on some dilemmas we confront in our work and on aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as these relate to my Agency’s mission.

My perspectives are informed by UNRWA’s sixty years of humanitarian and human development experience. I shall draw on my own insights from working with refugees since 1981 and from residing in Gaza since August 2000. I look forward to an exchange of views once I conclude.

UNRWA’s mission is to assist and protect the population of 4.6 million Palestine refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, until a just and lasting solution is found to their plight. Our operations are framed around five programmes, that continue to evolve as UNRWA strives to meet refugee needs in a volatile environment.

In the field of education, we employ 16,000 teachers in 683 elementary and preparatory schools and run ten vocational and technical training centers. Primary health care is delivered through 138 health clinics handling several million patient visits a year. UNRWA implements social safety-net activities, infrastructure and refugee camp improvement projects and microfinance interventions. We also maintain emergency response capabilities during and after armed conflict and in situations of humanitarian crisis. Our food aid programmes benefit approximately 1.2 million people, the majority of them in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Our programmes, addressing human development and humanitarian needs, are functionally separate, while reinforcing and complementing each other. This dovetailing is a vital aspect of UNRWA’s strength and operational flexibility. In acute emergencies, as occurred with the outbreak of armed conflict in Lebanon in 2006 and 2007 and frequently in the occupied Palestinian territory, UNRWA is able rapidly to place its staff and facilities at the service of refugees and others in need.

There are other distinguishing features to UNRWA’s operations. Unique among UN agencies, UNRWA offers its services directly to refugees, while coordinating its functions with those of host countries and authorities. Rather than operating through implementing partners, 29,000 teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, social workers, administrators and others, most of whom are refugees themselves – are UNRWA direct employees.

The size and regional scale of our operations, coupled with the quasi-governmental nature of our services impart a public character to UNRWA’s work. The refugees, the communities in which they live, and the governments and authorities share a stake in the continuation of UNRWA’s services. This sense of collective ownership is reinforced by the identification with Palestinian issues across the Middle East. A consequence of these factors is the relationship of confidence, built up over the decades, among UNRWA, Palestine refugees and the communities and countries that host them. UNRWA’s public, humanitarian and human development services also contribute to stability and calm in refugee communities.

Yet, UNRWA’s fundamental identity is as a UN agency that reports to the General Assembly and functions in harmony with the principles and purposes of the UN Charter. UNRWA and its staff promote the values of neutrality, impartiality, tolerance for diversity, non-violence and respect for the human rights of all.

Distinguished members,

I shall now briefly outline the situation in each of UNRWA’s fields of operation. In Jordan and Syria, the refugees enjoy a secure and stable environment, though even in these countries, the global financial crisis and high costs of living have increased the burdens of poverty and declining living conditions. Economic opportunities often remain out of the reach of many refugees, not least because UNRWA lacks the resources to assist them towards self-reliance.

Palestine refugees in Lebanon are familiar with difficult circumstances. In addition to experiencing instability and armed conflict, refugees in the past were excluded from the mainstream of employment and education. Hence, the stabilizing impact of UNRWA’s work and the reassurance it gives to refugees assume particular importance. Since 2005, the government has made welcome efforts, albeit with slow progress, to ensure refugees freedom of movement and access to employment. We hope that following the recent elections, the government will continue to improve the fortunes of refugees in Lebanon.

UNRWA’s principal concerns in Lebanon are the maintenance of order and decent living conditions in the country’s 12 refugee camps, protection and assistance for some 30,000 refugees displaced when the Nahr el-Bared camp was destroyed in the summer of 2007 and the re-building of that camp. We have appealed for $277 million to rebuild the camp and recently began the work, having received pledges amounting to $67.3m plus $10.3m from the World Bank Multi-donor Trust Fund. I cannot emphasize enough the critical importance of the Nahr El-Bared project. Support is urgently needed to fund the reconstruction, to realize the refugees’ right to a decent standard of living and to secure the stability of northern Lebanon.

In Gaza, the overarching concern remains the closure of its borders, since June 2007 (and well before, to a lesser extent), to the free flow of people, cash, and commercial, humanitarian and construction supplies. The blockade of Gaza and its indiscriminate consequences raise grave humanitarian issues as well as international humanitarian law questions related to the obligations of the occupying power.

A notable feature of the closure regime is its variability. Gaza’s borders are seldom closed absolutely, except during armed conflict. Over the past two months, there have been several instances of previously prohibited goods and supplies being allowed in. In July, a shipment of 100,000 litres of diesel and 40,000 litres of gasoline was approved and cooking gas imports were increased by 77 per cent. Some cement and steel bars for maintenance work on a waste water treatment plant entered, as did some limited quantities of glass for construction, and air conditioners. At the same time, ordinary household goods essential for everyday life, are available only due to tunnel traffic.

Decisions on what items will be allowed into Gaza, in what quantities, and when, rest entirely with the Israeli authorities. While the criteria and rationales for those decisions are said to arise from the need to protect Israel’s security, there is a questionable relationship between security risks and the items denied entry – such as pencils, stationery and other supplies for classroom use, cash and paper and ink to produce textbooks. Exports from Gaza are prohibited, the best known exception being a shipment of 15 truckloads of cut flowers to the Netherlands between February and April this year.

Quantity is another consideration. Prior to the imposition of the blockade, Gaza’s population of 1.5 million received a monthly average of 12,350 truckloads of goods and supplies. In July this year, only 2,231 truckloads were allowed in – well below the levels required for a normally functioning economy (or individual household). Fuel and other goods essential for construction, spare parts for water and sanitation systems and industrial and agricultural materials, are allowed either in limited amounts or barred completely. Only 70% of the industrial fuel needed for Gaza’s power plant is made available, resulting in at most 12 hours/day of electricity for most households.

The blockade strangles the economy. Unemployment stands at 37.5% and the 1.1 million Gazans now receiving food assistance are almost entirely aid-dependent. The closure also frustrates the UN’s plans to help rebuild Gaza following the devastation wrought by the January armed conflict. We have put on hold the re-building and repair of nearly 3,000 homes destroyed and 58,000 damaged plus a further 4,000 sub-standard shelters in need of renovation. As long as the closure regime persists, the reconstruction of Gaza’s destroyed factories, government buildings and public infrastructure will also be indefinitely postponed.

For some time now, UNRWA has warned in public statements that the blockade and isolation of Gaza serves only to fuel a sense of Palestinian injustice and thus to provide aid to extremist causes. These fears were tragically proved to be well-founded when in mid-August, a well-armed group, "Jund Ansar Allah", declared an Islamic Emirate, taking Hamas to task for halting attacks against Israel and failing to impose strict Sharia law. In the ensuing armed confrontation, 28 people were killed and more than 100 wounded, including civilians. Meanwhile the firing of rockets into Israel and armed confrontations between the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Palestinian militants, while markedly reduced, have not altogether ceased.

On the West Bank, recent reports and statements by Israeli authorities point to an easing of access restrictions. Some IDF roadblocks have been removed, the opening hours for passenger and commercial crossings with Jordan have been extended and socio-economic and commercial indicators in some sectors have improved. Official figures for the past 12 months show a 42% rise in trade between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and the West Bank’s economy is said to be growing at 7%.

While these are welcome developments, much more fundamental action is required to reverse the harsh realities of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank. The separation barrier and its associated movement obstacles, security zones, permit regimes and administrative restrictions continue to starve the economy, suppressing family and social relations and placing normal life out of the reach of many Palestinians.

A pattern of house demolitions and evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem has attracted widespread international condemnation. In a recent instance on 2 August, nine Palestinian families, comprising 53 people, were evicted from their homes by Israeli security personnel and their property immediately occupied by Israeli settlers. Hundreds of Palestinians are currently under the same threat. Frequent arrest and detention campaigns and violent attacks by Israeli settlers are regular features of Palestinian life. In East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank, 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 occupation, the West Bank is 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.

Distinguished members:

In an operational context as demanding and restless as ours, the last thing we need is a financial crisis. And yet that is precisely what we have faced for several years. While there are deficits in all three of our budget lines, the General Fund, our Emergency Appeals and the project budget, we are particularly worried by the 2009 financial projections for our core budget, the General Fund.

Our financial difficulties stem from a combination of factors over recent years. Unfavourable regional and economic patterns and high food and fuel costs have played their part, and as refugee needs have grown in tandem with the expanding population, UNRWA’s expenditures have risen, making it difficult to maintain the quality of its services and to meet the salary requirements of its 29,000 staff. Although 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, $67.3 million of this direct operational expenditures, mostly for salaries.

We are appealing to our donors for assistance to be able to advance our mission of helping refugees lead dignified lives, while serving as a calming presence across the region.

Your Excellencies:

UNRWA’s protection obligations entail action and international advocacy. They include calling attention to violations, reminding States and political actors of their obligations under human rights and international humanitarian law and encouraging recognition of the interests of Palestine refugees in political processes. The performance of these roles occasionally provokes charges of UNRWA’s "politicization".

In our experience, such claims are a result of the emotive climate so often associated with Israeli-Palestinian issues. Ours is an environment in which both sides frequently appear willing to disregard the restraints of international law, preferring to subordinate fundamental considerations of humanity to the pursuit of their perceived interests. In spite of the risks, however, UNRWA continues to take seriously its advocacy responsibilities.

We highlight the need for future processes of dialogue and negotiation to embrace the major constituencies, one of them refugees, within the Palestinian body politic. An inclusive approach, in which all Palestinians see themselves and their interests reflected, is more likely to command credibility and support.

It is vital that refugee interests and concerns are accorded serious reflection in any negotiation process. Under the universal refugee protection framework, informed individual choice, which is the essence of durable solutions for refugees the world over, must equally benefit Palestine refugees. Given the complexities of return and settlement issues in the Palestinian/Israeli context, informed choice must serve as the basis for clarifying refugee expectations and the rights attached to them.

The positions taken by the United States in recent months have given a long overdue boost to the prospects for positive change in our region. UNRWA and the Palestine refugees we serve welcome the tone of respect, compassion and balance in which the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been framed by the President of the United States and others. Yet, in the event that negotiations resume, there can be no illusions about the rocky path ahead. Good faith and strength of will of all parties, including the mediators, will be sorely tested, as will their capacity for compromise. And even assuming the best of intentions on all sides, it will take time and much delicate navigation to unravel and satisfy the complex layers of rights and interests that await fulfillment.

We join others in urging the international community to seize the opportunity to lay to rest the most protracted refugee conflict in modern times. In so doing, we take our motivation from the recognition that the security of Israel, the establishment of a viable Palestinian State living in peace and security with its neighbours, and a just and lasting solution for Palestine refugees, are imperatives in which the entire globe has a stake.