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

Speech by UNRWA Commissioner-General, Karen Koning AbuZayd

"Palestine refugees: A call for international action "

International Development Research Centre

Ottawa, 22 October 2007

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen:

I am grateful to the IDRC for hosting this occasion. I thank you all for coming to exchange views on the issue of Palestine refugees in the contemporary context. You will agree that the subject of Palestine is as poignant and vexing today as it has ever been over the past fifty-nine years. With the passing of the decades the need for a just and lasting solution has intensified, and the links between the Israeli-Palestinian issue and global security questions have been amplified. Neither the harshness of life under occupation nor the extraordinary duration of exile has dimmed the fervor of the quest by Palestinians, wherever they may live, for a State of Palestine.

In the areas where UNRWA runs its operations – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian territory, that is the West Bank and Gaza – there are 4.4 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA, more than five times their number at the time they fled their homeland in 1948. In the West Bank and Gaza, they constitute almost half the population. There are also significant numbers of Palestine refugees living in the global diaspora, at least another four to five million according to some estimates. Many, including those here in Canada, have become citizens of their new countries. Nevertheless, the open wound that is the unresolved issue of their forced flight from their homeland 60 years ago continues to affect each and every one in different ways, regardless of how well they may have done in life.

Considering this formidable dimensions of this refugee issue, and the high profile accorded to Palestinian matters by the international media, why and how have conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory been allowed to reach their present state? And given the obvious connection between the goal of Palestinian statehood and a resolution of the refugee issue, why has this issue been relatively invisible, or at least marginalized, in the discourse of regional solutions?

My choice of topic for this afternoon was prompted by questions such as these and by my conviction that principled, dynamic multilateral action by the international community could make a difference to the lives and prospects of Palestine refugees and Palestinians as a whole. I take it as a matter of course that Canada, widely respected for its multilateralism, will play a privileged role when it comes to the resolution of the refugee question.

I will begin with a brief introduction to UNRWA’s programmes, using them as an illustration of the value of sustained humanitarian and human development work. I will follow this with a brief description of the conditions Palestinians endure in those parts of British Mandate Palestine classified by the international community at large as occupied territory. Of UNRWA’s five field operations, I choose to focus on Gaza and the West Bank because it is there that the refugees face among their gravest challenges. I will suggest that conditions there reflect poorly on the thrust and direction of international action in recent years. I will then reflect on a few key areas where a different orientation might foster an environment that promotes the interests of all the region’s residents

The weight of UNRWA’s humanitarian and human development work over the decades is considerable. We are a large organization by any measure, with over 27,000 staff in five locations and a 1.09 billion US dollar budget for the coming two years. The geographic spread of our operations is matched by the scale and the public nature of services we offer to the refugees. Every year, 500,000 children, half of them girls, attend UNRWA schools up to the age of 14. These children benefit from a curriculum which is based on that of the local authorities and enriched with mandatory courses on human rights, tolerance and conflict resolution introduced by my agency.

In each of our areas of operation, we maintain vocational schools offering a total of over 5,600 training places, and thus help meet the demand for marketable skills among refugee youth. As a side note, I should add here that, if additional donor money were available, the thirst for places is such that we could expand considerably the scale of our vocational training work. UNRWA’s vocational training school for women in the West Bank was the first of its kind in the region.

Our primary health care service caters for approximately nine million patient visits each year. It has the proud record of having eradicated communicable diseases and achieved a nearly 100 percent target for childhood vaccinations.

Through relief activities and community-based work, UNRWA lends a hand to the most vulnerable among the refugees, including the abject poor, the disabled and the elderly. Our micro-finance programme, which sustains its operation from self-generated income, supports small businesses as a means towards sustainable livelihoods.

UNRWA’s camp improvement programme takes a comprehensive approach to improving refugee living conditions. In building and repairing tumble-down homes and essential infrastructure, it seeks to promote a healthy environment for the one-third of the refugees who still live in the 58 refugee camps in our five areas of operation.

The impact of UNRWA’s work on the well-being of Palestine refugees cannot be overstated.

We ensure that in the principal areas that influence human development, the essential needs of refugees are addressed in a reliable and structured way, complementing services provided by local authorities to their citizens. We deliver our services directly to refugees, relying on skills available within the refugee population.

Our minimal use of implementing partners is coupled with an extensive field presence in refugee communities. This gives UNRWA its intimate acquaintance with the refugees and the wider Palestinian community.

Beyond tangible achievements in health, education and other sectors, the value of UNRWA’s role should also be understood in terms of the reassurance that its presence, activities and down-to-earth approach to service delivery imparts to refugee communities. This reassurance helps mitigate the refugees’ sense of isolation. In the midst of frequent tensions and conflict in our turbulent region, the sense of comfort and support we engender plays no small part in promoting a stable environment.

I should mention that our close relationship to those we serve is not without its challenges. As much as my agency strives to maintain programmes of high quality, there are occasions when we fall short, or when budget deficits compel us to curtail the level of activities we consider non-essential. On such occasions, our beneficiaries’ easy access to UNRWA means that we have little insulation from their displeasure. There have been recent instances in the West Bank where the safety of our staff has been threatened by refugees demanding improvements to, or restoration of, services.

We also face challenges of a different kind when some interlocutors misconstrue our wide-ranging operational presence to erroneously suggest an association with one political faction or another. Unfortunately, the current political divergence between those in power in the West Bank and in Gaza has lent itself to these kinds of false insinuations.

Such pitfalls notwithstanding, over the years we have consistently enjoyed the trust and confidence of refugees and a broad cross-section of Palestinian society.

This is not only because we live and work with refugees while delivering consistent and committed support to them. It is also based on the fact that the services we deliver concretely demonstrate the classic principles of humanitarian action: impartiality, neutrality and non-discrimination. My agency and its work have come to symbolize the view that the international community cares about Palestinian human and humanitarian needs, and wishes these to be addressed in spite of the challenging political and security environment.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen:

Allow me to turn to some features of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.

In the West Bank, the illegal separation barrier and the relentless growth of illegal Israeli settlements are glaring examples of how Palestinian rights and interests are brushed aside in ways that suggest that the breaches may become permanent.

In spite of having been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in its 2004 Advisory Opinion, the construction of the separation barrier continues apace. As it grows, so does the sophisticated and severe regime of restrictions on the movement of Palestinian people and goods. In many places along its 408 kilometer length, the separation barrier effectively appropriates Palestinian land. The UN estimates that as much as 640 square kilometers of Palestinian land has already been lost to the barrier, including 5 percent of the agricultural land under cultivation.(1) More is certain to be lost as the barrier is extended. In this regard, UN sources indicate that the land appropriated for settlements, outposts, military bases, restricted military areas and settler-only roads together take up another 38 percent of West Bank land. Most of the best sources of fresh water also happen to be on the Israeli side of the barrier.

Even with the separation barrier still uncompleted, over 60,000 people living in the area between the barrier and the Green Line – as well as half a million Palestinians living inside the West Bank but within a kilometre of the barrier – are already suffering its devastating effects on their lives and livelihoods. Palestinians cannot freely get to markets, schools, hospitals and places of worship, even visit their own families. Farmers are unable to reach the land and water they need to maintain themselves. The separation barrier, its associated closure and movement control regime and the process of construction itself are causing significant levels of displacement, as families and communities abandon their homes and move elsewhere to seek a less oppressive environment.

Road blocks and checkpoints in the West Bank have increased in number from 396 in November 2005 to 563 in September 2007. This is a rise of 42 percent, during a period when numerous undertakings have been given that the impediments to Palestinian movement will be minimized. The World Bank and others have warned in stark terms of the economic consequences of these draconian controls.

As the physical obstacles have risen in number, fewer crossing points have been open to Palestinians wishing to cross the barrier, while stringent, digitized permit and identification procedures have been introduced, particularly for Palestinians travelling between the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A good illustration of the impact on normal life is that over the past several years, the difficulties of obtaining a permit to enter Jerusalem have resulted in a 50% decrease in the number of patients visiting the six specialist hospitals in East Jerusalem.(2)

Inevitably, the closure regime affects UNRWA’s West Bank operations. Productivity is reduced because negotiating checkpoints and terminals is time-consuming and stressful. It takes more time for our staff, 350 of whom live in the West Bank and work in Jerusalem, to commute to and from work. In some cases, our staff are denied access to places where they are needed to deliver essential services to the refugees.

The barrier’s squeeze on Palestinian land and living space is exacerbated by the apparently inexorable growth of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.(3) International humanitarian law, codified in the Fourth Geneva Convention, expressly prohibits an occupying power from transporting its own citizens onto occupied territory. These actions also violate express undertakings made in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Notwithstanding the clear illegality of settler activity, there has been a surge in the influx of Israeli settlers onto Palestinian land from 126,000 in 1993 to some 450,000 in 2007. With this growth, more and more Palestinian land is expropriated for the infrastructure required to support the settlements, further compressing the space available for Palestinians to live normal lives. It should not come as a surprise, then, to hear that despite their renowned resilience and steadfastness in the face of pressure more and more Palestinians are giving up and trying to move elsewhere, to enable them and their children to lead a normal life in future. The young, the talented, the most enterprising, are in the vanguard of this undocumented silent exodus.

In addition to violating fundamental Palestinian rights and freedoms, the separation barrier, settlement activity and the closure regime have splintered the West Bank to a point where its territorial integrity is compromised. In consequence, grave doubts may be cast on the prospects for the future existence of a viable social, political and economic unit.

When we turn to the situation in Gaza, we encounter a picture of extreme deprivations hardly less excruciating than those faced by Palestinians in the West Bank. As in the West Bank, Gaza’s borders and airspace are under the control of the occupying power. The notable difference is that Palestinians are confined to the narrow space of the Gaza Strip but can move freely within it, whereas internal freedom of movement within the West Bank is heavily restricted. The picture in Gaza is one etched in eerie gloom and surreal isolation. A people who have spent nearly sixty years in exile as refugees are deliberately segregated from the rest of the world, with the approval of major international actors.

The economy of Gaza is prostrate, almost entirely reliant on the whim of an occupying power that carefully calibrates the inflow of essential supplies, allowing in only small quantities at a time.

The Karni and Rafah crossings - respectively Gaza’s main access and exit point for commercial goods and movement of people – have both been completely closed since June this year. Prior to June, they were open only intermittently and unpredictably. Since September 19, when the Israeli government declared Gaza to be a "hostile entity", the drip-feed into Gaza of medical supplies, food, commercial goods, fuel, electricity and other essential commodities has slowed and become even more capricious. It is reported that, under the new sanctions, items that can be described as "multi-purpose" are prohibited from entering Gaza. These include wood, plastics and paper.

Between the first weeks of June and September this year, an average of 106 truckloads was allowed into Gaza each day, compared to 248 a year ago. Since mid-September, this lifeline of commercial and humanitarian traffic has dropped to approximately 50 truckloads per day. Palestinians seeking essential medical attention in Israel or the West Bank have also been affected. In July this year, an average of 40 patients was allowed to leave Gaza each day. Since September, at a time when de facto sanctions have stripped Gaza’s hospitals of their ability to care for the sick, fewer than five patients have been permitted to leave Gaza to receive the medical care they require.

The isolation of Gaza is wreaking havoc on the economy and on the livelihoods of ordinary Palestinians. Eighty percent of Gazans live in poverty. Unemployment has reached 44% this year as prices of essential food and household commodities – especially vegetable oil, flour, fresh and frozen meat and animal feed - rise beyond the reach of even those who still earn a decent salary.

Not surprisingly, "food insecurity" is as high as 77% in northern Gaza, where the destruction of crops and arable land during Israeli incursions has taken a crushing toll on livelihoods. Eighty percent of Gazan residents receive some form of subsistence assistance from the United Nations. This number will inevitably rise still further if further strangulation of Gaza’s economy persists and the flow of commerce continues to be stifled.

The closure of Karni crossing is also affecting humanitarian operations. Some 213 million dollars worth of infrastructure and employment projects have been disrupted, of which 93 million dollars were UNRWA’s alone. These projects were intended to build schools and other essential infrastructure, provide employment and help raise living standards.

While the effects of the blockade on Gaza are being felt by everyone, it is inevitable, and entirely predictable, that the sick and the vulnerable will bear the brunt of the new levels of hardship. A small example is a school for the deaf where children cannot use their hearing aids because the importation of batteries has been refused.

People who live in or visit Gaza have long been subject to an arbitrary regime of restrictions to departure. Since June this year, that regime has toughened considerably with awful consequences for many Palestinians who came to Gaza over the summer to visit their families. These include parents and children who must now suffer an unknown period of forced separation from their loved ones and from the schools they attend abroad.

Some 4,000 to 5,000 Palestinian students attending schools and universities around the world are presently stranded in Gaza, risking serious disruption to their academic programmes and their future prospects. From mid-August to early September, the occupying power allowed only 600 students to leave from the Erez crossing to the Israel-Egypt border. No further departures have been permitted since then.

In both the West Bank and Gaza, the backdrop to the closure regime and the environment of repression is an interminable armed conflict of sporadic intensity, punctuated by search and arrest raids and house demolitions.

And so it continues: an armed conflict that is the bane of Palestinian lives is as fiercely fought by both sides as it has been for years, and yet it is greeted by the international community with a resigned shrug as if not meriting urgent intervention of neutral mediators.

If these are the tangible, measurable effects of the policy to isolate and blockade Palestine, you can well imagine what the psychological impact might be. The least we can expect is a growing feeling of frustration and fury alongside exasperation as the sanctions bite. There is as well a feeling of bewilderment and injustice as ordinary Palestinians try to make sense of policies that are so candidly intended to punish and pauperize an entire population, with no effort to distinguish between intended targets and the hundreds of thousands of others.

There are also many in Gaza and the West Bank who exploit the sense of injustice to swell the ranks of extremists and militants. We have seen indications that these elements are meeting with some success; they point to indiscriminate sanctions and the isolation of Gaza as proof that, far from delivering a Palestinian state, non-violence and peaceful negotiation will yield nothing but more trampling on Palestinian rights and more suffering.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen:

These are but a few snapshots of the state of Palestinians under occupation. I have offered them to you conscious that words are feeble vehicles to convey the suffering of an entire people.

Still, I hope I have said enough to convince you that the status quo in the occupied Palestinian territory shames us all. It raises questions about our commitment to declarations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It casts a cloud over our professed loyalty to the rule of international law and to principles of tolerance, justice, inclusiveness and the peaceful resolution of disputes. And it poses a potent rhetorical question: how can it be in anyone’s interest to keep Palestinians in such a state of bondage?

The point deserving emphasis is that since the second intifada erupted in late 2000 humanitarian action by UNRWA and other donor-funded agencies, and since 2006 by the European TIM mechanism has been the principal, if not the only, sphere in which the international community’s concern for the people of Palestine has been meaningfully expressed. Humanitarian and human development work has proved to be necessary and vital for the survival and well-being of refugees. In an otherwise barren and abandoned landscape, ours is the one sector that has consistently worked, in the interests of ordinary Palestinians.

We are very concerned, however, that our endeavors on the humanitarian front run counter to current international policy towards the occupied Palestinian territory. While we strive to attend to human needs, to care for the vulnerable, to safeguard human dignity and to strengthen people’s capacity for self-reliance, the thrust of the international approach has lately been in the opposite direction - towards isolation and punitive measures whose foreseeable consequences are human suffering on an even larger scale, and ever more conflict.

Conditions in the West Bank and Gaza are a sad reflection of this dissonance between international humanitarian action and international political action. In place of concrete progress on political issues, we see sporadic diplomatic activity interspersed with lofty statements of intent. Instead of a vigorous stance on holding the parties to their obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law, a legal and protection vacuum has emerged, one that is exploited by both sides as license for repeated violations.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is testimony to the futility of seeking to resolve complex and profound political differences by force of arms. This is a conflict in which the international community’s approach could be expected to be grounded in unanimous rejection of the use of force by all sides and principled commitment to negotiated solutions.

Instead, in place of an inclusive approach that places a premium on peaceful methods, we have seen the exclusion of relevant actors from the negotiating process combined with substantial support for self-destructive military action. As a result, the combination of the absence of political progress, the climate of impunity for the violations of Palestinian rights and freedoms and the isolation of Gaza is proving to be a destructive mix, not only for Palestinians, but also for a viable Palestinian state.

My call is for international action more in tune with the normative ideals and standards that the international community has painstakingly developed over the past half century - standards Canada has consistently upheld. Self-determination, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, freedom from poverty and the peaceful resolution of disputes are not fantasies. They are as achievable for Palestinians – refugees and non refugees alike – as they are for any other people.

What is urgently needed today is action to hold the parties to account for breaches of humanitarian law and human rights abuses against Palestinians; action that brings an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and that champions peace through peaceful means; and action that complements humanitarian and human development efforts with attention to the economic and political foundations for a viable Palestinian State.

And in the run up to Annapolis meeting and that quest for a viable Palestinian State, what is needed is action to restore the international community’s credibility as a trustworthy partner for the Palestinian people.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen:

It is axiomatic to recognize the links between addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, resolving the question of Palestine refugees, and bringing into being a viable State of Palestine. It is also manifestly clear that a just and lasting solution of these questions is inextricably bound to the achievement of regional peace and global security.

If I may borrow a currently-rewarded metaphor, conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory and the Palestinian question as a whole seem to be "inconvenient truths".

We ignore them at our collective peril.


(1) Report on UNCTAD's Assistance to the Palestinian People, 2007 -- TD/B/53/2

(2) OCHA, “East Jerusalem : The Humanitarian Impact of the West Bank Barrier” July 2007

(3) A useful source of information on this subject is a July 2007 report issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) under the title: The humanitarian impact on Palestinians of Israeli settlements and other infrastructure in the West Bank.

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