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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
22 May 2007

Commissioner-General’s Speech

Woodrow Wilson Institute; Washington D.C.; 22 May 2007

Palestine refugees: A test for our time

Thank you all very much for inviting me to share with you a few thoughts on one of the most vexing and intractable issues of our time. In the space of 11 months from 1947 to 1948, some 800,000 Palestinians were compelled to abandon their homes and livelihoods for the safety of refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. In the fierce conflict that followed the establishment of the State of Israel, many Palestinians witnessed horrifying events while others may only have heard of the tragic happenings in nearby villages. All of them fled in fear and desperation, propelled by the survival instinct and motivated by a desire to weather what they believed was but a temporary storm.

Today, as some 4.4 million Palestine refugees prepare to mark the sixtieth anniversary of their flight into exile, they continue to rely - like those before them and to a greater extent than they might have expected - on survival skills and sheer determination to endure adverse circumstances. This is not to say that there is nothing to reckon on the positive side of the balance sheet. Through UNRWA’s work and with the support of host countries, donors and other agencies, significant achievements have been wrought in health, education, social safety net support, micro-finance and infrastructure programmes. The literacy rate for Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory is 92.4%, compared to roughly 67% for the Middle-East region, and communicable diseases have been eradicated. In spite of these and other advances, Palestine refugees and Palestinians contend with threats to their lives and livelihoods and suffer levels of material deprivation that belie these positive development indicators. Half of children in the occupied Palestinian territory have witnessed their school besieged by troops, a quarter have seen their schools exposed to shelling or firing and nearly a fifth have seen a school-mate killed by troops.(1) Most are exposed to violence on a near daily basis, including tragically from their own communities and families. Since the post-election economic blockage, malnutrition has become an additional threat to the lives and futures of children in the Palestinian territory. One in ten will now suffer long-term effects of malnutrition.

Looking back over the past fifty-nine years, it would be difficult to avoid the inference that in the face of extraordinary Palestinian fortitude, the balance sheet is very much in the red. This raises a number of questions: Why is the account in such a sorry state? On whose shoulders rest responsibility for the political, economic and humanitarian deficits that plague the occupied Palestinian territory? And what prospects are there for the future of Palestinians, and, indeed, Palestine? These are pertinent and necessary questions. Yet in posing them, many of us tend to adopt a somewhat detached attitude. We dwell on the grim conditions Palestinians face and on the shortcomings of their political leaders, as though the Palestinian issue inhabits a world apart from ours. I take the view that we should not continue to hold ourselves aloof and that in our quest to move forward, the questions that must be asked and answered include those that probe our own stances and attitudes. By putting ourselves forward as sponsors, mediators and brokers, have we created and encouraged expectations and dependencies only to turn our back on addressing them?

I was drawn to our topic because I see the Palestinian issue as one that puts on trial our perception of ourselves. My intention is to encourage turning the searchlight inwards to allow us to see whether we live up to the image that we ourselves project to the Palestinian people. That image has a lot to do with the ideals we profess in a modern, enlightened world, ideals that would be familiar to the illustrious gentleman whose name this Institute bears.

We cannot know what he would have made of the long struggle of the Palestinian people since 1948. What we can say is that we, as a global community, have come a long way since his time. Many of the precepts which Woodrow Wilson espoused with so much energy were in his time regarded as idealistic – perhaps even fanciful – notions: the inviolability of self-determination for subjugated peoples; the value of multilateralism and cooperation in international relations; aversion to international conflict; and the conviction that high office was perfectly compatible with high ideals. It required another world war, hard on the heels of the first and bringing in its wake unprecedented human and material cost, to make these precepts accepted in international discourse.

What we refer to as the “international community” is made up of a variety of complex features, many of which have evolved since the Second World War. For the purposes of this discussion, I have selected four features which, though far from being exhaustive, account for a large part of the international community’s image as seen by the global audience. These features are: human rights protection; the eradication of poverty; promotion of good governance; and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Against these features, I will juxtapose glimpses of how they have played out in the occupied Palestinian territory, with a view to illustrating the divide between the picture that we have of ourselves and the consequences of our actions and omissions. Before we delve into the subject, I would like to state, by way of a small caveat, that as one would expect from the mandate of my Agency, my views are grounded in a humanitarian perspective. In the current circumstances, I believe that this perspective should be central to any debate about Palestinians. Nevertheless, I concede that given the complex and evolving situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, other angles and viewpoints are worth considering. I do look forward to exchanging views on some of those after my presentation.

A good starting point for our discussion is the protection of human rights as one of the defining paradigms of our time. The UN Charter affirmed the faith of nations in the dignity and worth of every human being and in equal rights for the peoples of all nations, big and small. It imposed upon the United Nations and its member States an obligation to promote “higher standards of living…, economic and social progress and development”, and “observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all”. The Charter recognized that international cooperation is indispensable to tackling problems of an international nature and it included economic, humanitarian and human rights problems in its list of challenges that demand a multilateral approach.

The Charter was the foundation upon which a plethora of well-known conventions and instruments flourished: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Geneva Conventions on the protection of persons in armed conflict; the International Covenants on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights; the Conventions to prevent and punish the crime of genocide, to prohibit torture and to eliminate racial discrimination and discrimination against women. These and other instruments have been fortified in no small measure by General Assembly and Security Council resolutions over the years, as well as by State practice.

As a result of this process of development, what some would have considered not so long ago as only moral concepts are now imbued with the force of international law. The idea that the rights and freedoms of individuals everywhere, regardless of their national or ethnic origin, can and should be the responsibility of States and peoples elsewhere is now accepted and written into conventions. And let us not fail to recall those occasions when States have themselves invoked the protection of human rights as justification – at least in part - for concerted political and military action in other States.

I have to say that the human rights face of the international community is manifestly difficult to reconcile with the comprehensive violations that are omnipresent in Palestinian lives. That dissonance – the gap between what the international community professes and what it allows by action and omission to occur - is hugely baffling to the people of the occupied Palestinian territory. Armed conflict – both with Israel and internally – regularly results in Palestinian deaths at rates that challenge the pre-eminence given to the right to life in human rights discourse. The over 10,000 Palestinians – including 116 women and 380 children - believed to be held in Israeli detention raise questions about the extent to which any respect is accorded to the prohibition against arbitrary arrest. And if the US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights are correct, there are credible doubts about compliance with the customary international law prohibition against torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, a prohibition from which international law permits no derogations.

In the occupied West Bank, broad spectrums of Palestinian rights are regularly and gravely abused through armed conflict and the policies imposed by the occupying power. With some 549 physical obstacles to movement – a 44% increase over last year; a paralyzing regime of rigidly enforced permits; an increasingly stifling system of cantonization and the massively constricting wall; freedom of movement simply does not exist for Palestinians in the West Bank. Neither does the dignity promised to all human beings by human rights instruments. On the contrary, Palestinians in the West Bank lead a fragmented existence, dispossessed of normal life and constrained by the coercive power of the occupation to endure forced separation from their lands, from their families, their services and even their places of worship.

If the human rights paradigm is a defining aspect of the international community, then so too is the prominence we give to the issue of addressing poverty. This is of course a valid preoccupation that is underpinned by the right of everyone to enjoy a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. The first item on the list of Millennium Development Goals is the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, with the specific goal being to halve by the year 2015, the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day. You may recall that in the Millennium Declaration, heads of State and Government solemnly pledged to “….spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty…”

There is a staggering irony in the contrast between the universal commitment to poverty eradication, as expressed in these words, and the decision to impose on Palestinians one of the most severe sanctions regimes in recent history, thereby virtually guaranteeing the widespread incidence of extreme poverty. That irony is not lost on Palestinians.

Since February 2006, the de facto sanctions regime has slowly but surely strangled the economy and devastated livelihoods. It has ensured that donor support to the Palestinian Authority has been suspended, along with customs and tax payments due from the Israeli authorities. It is often overlooked that this money actually belongs to Palestinians and is collected by Israeli authorities on their behalf. The 165,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority received only half of their salaries in 200.(2) As a direct consequence of the sanctions regime and the partial payment of salaries, poverty and unemployment are at their highest levels yet. 66% of Palestinians live in poverty, a 30% increase over 2005. There has been a 40% decline in Gross Domestic Product since 1999, with a close to 10 % contraction occurring in 2006 alone. Unemployment has doubled since 1999. In Gaza, 80% of the population rely on UN food aid, while 88% of refugees live below the absolute poverty line.(3)

Striking as they may be, these figures hardly convey the full picture of the Palestinian crisis. Having lived and worked in Gaza for the past six-and a half years, I can tell you that living conditions were already miserable at the beginning of 2006. In the present circumstances, it is heartbreaking to see increasingly visible evidence of progressive deterioration on the streets of Gaza as people exhaust their coping mechanisms and become ever more desperate.

Palestinians are a well-informed and well-educated people. They are aware that their extreme conditions are due to anything but natural causes. They know that the conditions are the result of deliberate political decisions by those who maintain the boycott in spite of clear evidence of the cruelty of its impact. And, directly to the point of this evening’s discussion, Palestinians cannot help but notice that the architects of the sanctions are also the guiding lights in the development of human rights and leading sponsors of the numerous global commitments on the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. Which of these is the true face of the international community?

The sanctions regime has also had a destructive effect on governance, law and order, and social cohesion. There have been precipitous rises in thefts, robberies and other violent crimes in the past year as the security agencies become increasingly overwhelmed. Their lack of capacity and equipment is hardly surprising, as the Palestinian security apparatus never had the chance to rebuild after having been destroyed by aerial bombardment early during the intifada. Before the onset of the current crises, Palestinians took pride in the strength of their social networks which were built around a robust social code and cemented by family allegiance. In days gone by, the social support system was the principal coping mechanism. On it Palestinians relied for their resilience to adversity and their resistance to social deviance. It is sad to say that under the crushing weight of poverty and desperation, the social support system is rapidly disintegrating and with it the ability of the Palestinian Authority, starved of resources and funds, to exert anything approaching governmental authority.

An especially troubling development is the rise to prominence of family-run fiefdoms in Gaza, many with their own armed security apparatus and often with criminal agendas to match. Far from exhibiting any inclination to be law-abiding, these groups challenge what is left of the authority of the Palestinian Authority.

In short, the international boycott has done devastating damage to the Palestinian Authority – an institution whose establishment would not have been possible without substantial donor investments. Some estimates suggest that between 1993 and 2005, budgetary and developmental support to the Palestinian Authority amounted to some 6.5 billion dollars, the highest per capita aid received by any developing country (excluding Israel). All of that investment is now being allowed to crumble away as we witness the unravelling of progress achieved over the last decade in building Palestinian institutions of state. In 1999, the Palestinian Authority had begun to reduce its dependency on external budgetary support. In 2006, donors were called upon to raise their levels of assistance. The additional funds were however not directed at growth or economic recovery but rather towards bypassing Palestinian Authority institutions, addressing short-term humanitarian needs and shoring up the security sector at the expense of institution-building, social services and the rule of law.

The level of support to the Palestinian Authority in the past was certainly related to the peace process and the high priority given to Palestinian issues by the international community. What is pertinent to the line of my argument is that the backing given to the Palestinian Authority was also consistent with the priority given by the United Nations, the European Union and others, to promoting good governance globally. Thus, in the sphere of governance, as in human rights and poverty eradication, we see another divide between commitments globally made and the extent to which we have been prepared to give Palestinians the benefit of those commitments.

A further discrepancy can be identified in the area of the international community’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The presently moribund state of the peace process is the direct result of a policy to isolate a particular party, regardless of the fact that it happens to command a significant constituency. The policy of isolation is arguably at odds with the UN Charter’s vision of a system of collective security that is founded on the peaceful settlement of disputes, mutual restraint in the use of armed force and joint action to address threats to international peace and security. Our policy to exclude one side is also at variance with the approach that the international community has successfully pursued in resolving other armed conflicts. In some notable and rather well-known recent examples in western Europe and South Asia, neither the “terrorist” epithet, nor the fact of continuing and even escalating armed conflict deterred mediators from engaging the protagonists and continuing to press for a solution. In these and other instances, there were several motivating forces behind the international community’s dogged determination. There was recognition of the high human, material and political cost of allowing an armed conflict to continue unchecked and awareness that political conflicts were simply not susceptible to military solutions. There was also a calculated risk, based on a balanced assessment of their conduct, that the parties were capable of exercising good faith. With these factors in mind, many successful peace negotiations proceeded on the basis of the mediators’ neutrality, inclusiveness and abstention from passing moral or political judgment on either party’s eligibility to be present at the table.

In the Palestinian instance, all the motivating forces I have referred to are present. One would therefore have hoped, or perhaps even expected, that an open, even-handed and accommodating approach – what one might call standard practice of peace negotiations - would have been followed. An inclusive approach would have been justified by the fact that at the time the Palestinian leadership changed at the beginning of 2006, a negotiation process was already in train with credible, well-resourced negotiation structures in place. These resources could have been utilized rather than being allowed to wither away. It is also pertinent to recall that in early 2004, the movement that is currently leading the Palestinian Authority made earnest attempts to persuade other factions to jointly declare a ceasefire on the Palestinian side. When this effort failed owing to the reluctance of some factions to temporarily lay down their arms, the movement took the initiative in February 2005 to unilaterally commit itself to a hudna or cessation of hostilities and faithfully kept its word for no less than sixteen months. The hudna was called off on 9 June, 2006 following the killing by an artillery shell of seven members of the Ghalia family on a Gaza beach. The international community could have taken the hudna at face value as strong signal of good faith and an indication that a major player was prepared to give the negotiation process a chance. All things considered, it becomes clear that the decision to isolate the Palestinian side and exclude it from the negotiating table is in effect a decision to freeze the peace process regardless of the consequences. Likewise, the decision to disregard the agreement reached in Mecca in February this year is effectively a clear message of our indifference to the implications of the deadly conflict between Palestinian factions. Both decisions are examples of the discrepancy between the principles we profess and our actions on the Palestinian stage.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live in an age of astonishing material wealth and technological progress. It is true that there can be no comparison between our dominance over the physical world and our ability to achieve peace and harmony within and between nations. Yet it also cannot be denied that in tandem with material progress over the last half century, we have acquired greater and deeper understanding of the ideals that must govern the conduct of States and international relationships if the evils of conflict and poverty are to be kept at bay.

I have suggested some elements of that heightened international understanding. There is now universal acceptance of the need to promote human rights and justice for all without adverse distinction; to enhance economic opportunity for all and ensure equity and balance in the distribution of wealth. There is agreement on the futility of armed conflict as a method of resolving political conflict and there are also prescribed limits the permissible means and methods of war. There is universal recognition that good governance and the rule of law are bulwarks for stability and development and it is commonly acknowledged that multilateralism and inclusiveness are imperatives for effectively addressing the challenges of an interdependent world.

I have pointed at gaps and disparities between the countenance we present to the world and the visage Palestinians see. I find it striking that rather than face up to our flaws we tend to create in our discourse a special place for Palestinians. We make so much of the uniqueness of their situation to a point where it becomes implicit that their distinctiveness somehow places Palestinians outside the normal purview of international law and excuses our extraordinary record of inaction. The view from the ground, however is that far from being unique, Palestinians are very ordinary in their desire for peace, justice and normal life.

My theme is that these aspirations are – or should be common-place and available to all in a world where individual rights and freedoms, justice, equity, multilateralism and inclusiveness are universal ideals. It just so happens that these are the same ideals to which Palestinians aspire, and, incidentally, the measure against which they hold us to account. Palestine refugees are a test for our time because they demand from us no more than we have pronounced ourselves to be ready to give. They request from us no more than what we have committed ourselves to accomplish as modern States in an era of remarkable human advancement.

I have argued that we have failed to be true – not only to Palestinians – but also to the standards we set have ourselves. As became clear last week when we witnessed the worst ever inter-factional fighting in Gaza, the consequences of this failure are grave and steadily worsening. Still, I am convinced that there is yet time to make amends, provided we can turn the searchlight inwards, acknowledge the part that our actions and omissions have played in the tragic state of things and take immediate steps to reverse them. I believe this change of direction is necessary and possible. All it will require from us is the courage of our convictions.


(1) Birzeit, 2004
World Bank, March 07

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