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15 February 2008

The United Nations
Office at Geneva

15 February 2008

Elena Ponomareva-Piquier, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Office at Geneva, chaired the briefing, at which the Deputy Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, Filippo Grandi, gave an update on the situation of Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territories. Spokespersons and representatives from the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, and the World Intellectual Property Organization also made statements.


Update on Situation of Palestinian Refugees

United Nations United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Deputy Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi said, as everyone knew, UNRWA provided essential services in education, health, and poverty reduction to 4.5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. However, in the past two years, since the Palestinian election in 2006, UNRWA had had to face a cluster of challenges that were unprecedented in scale and gravity. At the end of 2006, UNRWA welcomed the renewed energy put into the peace process in the form of the Annapolis Conference and the conference that had followed. Unfortunately, they had not seen parallel progress in terms of good will measures. There was an increasing gap in the "rhetoric of peace and what people had to face on the ground every day", Mr. Grandi said.

Gaza was the most blatant example of that. The immediate causes of the crisis were relatively simple: closures around the Gaza Strip to impede the flow of goods – including to a certain extent humanitarian goods – and people. In January 2007, according to UNRWA's figures, some 14,000 to 15,000 trucks had passed Gaza borders; in January 2008, only 1,800 trucks had been allowed through. The most serious aspect of the crisis was the energy shortage. The director of a large public hospital in Gaza told him last week that he could no longer deal with the health problems of the population, as he had to spend his whole day looking for fuel. Without it, the generators would stop and vital structures, such as incubators for infants, would shut down. UNRWA had, at various times, run out of paper to print textbooks; run out of cement to complete over $100 million in construction projects; run out of nylon bags used to distribute food; run out of meat; and run out of cash to pay employees. True, those shortages were eventually made up – but very, very late and as a result of a lot of negotiations. To run such a vast operation, catering to so many who were heavily dependent on aid, was very, very difficult indeed.

Turning elsewhere, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had estimated that there were still over 560 blockages of different kinds across the West Bank, which had similar effects to the Gaza Strip closures: people had difficulties reaching health centres and schools; selling produce to larger markets had become almost impossible for small farmers; and even reaching religious centres for prayer was increasingly difficult. This had led possibly, and perhaps probably, to increased political radicalization, particularly of the younger sectors of society. They had long predicted that closures would push many moderate Palestinians towards more radical positions as a reaction rather than the contrary, and many recently published opinion polls suggested that trend had already started.

In Lebanon, Mr. Grandi said some of the situations in the Palestinian refugee camps had been among the worst in the region for many years. Since 2005, the Government of Prime Minister Siniora had shown a very laudable and very courageous degree of openness to projects aimed at improving conditions in Palestinian refugee camps; however, those had suffered a big setback when the Nahr El-Bared camp in the north had been caught in the midst of a violent conflict between the Government forces and Fatah al-Islam militants as a result of which the camp had been razed. Tuesday in Beirut, the Prime Minister and UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd had announced plans to rebuild the camp. The reconstruction of the camp proper – essentially a small town for 30,000 to 35,000 people – was expected to cost $174 million. That project was on a scale that was unprecedented for the United Nations.

There was a real necessity to overcome the gap between a slow moving peace process and conditions on the ground, Mr. Grandi stressed. Peace could only take a firm hold in the region if a climate of confidence was created. That would require a reduction in closures and increased ability of Palestinians to move about and exercise their rights.

Responding on whether UNRWA had felt the impact of the resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on the situation in Gaza, Mr. Grandi observed that it was often hard to judge such things concretely. Especially if one considered that it was also necessary to ask oneself, what would the situation be like if no resolution had been adopted at all? Indeed, declarations had been adopted in numerous forums on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. Unfortunately, they had not witnessed a decrease in the number of human rights violations being committed there.


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