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Source: United Nations News Service (See also > DPI)
8 September 2005
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) saw the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as an opportunity and was keen to ensure benefits and opportunities for the people in that area, Commissioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd told correspondents at Headquarters this afternoon.

She said UNRWA was working to promote the economy, focusing on job creation, microfinancing and housing reconstruction.  It was developing a job programme for graduates and people who had been unable to work during the intifada in order to find them jobs with municipalities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector.  It would be funded, for the first year, by the international community.  The Agency also had a longer-term programme to improve refugee-camp infrastructure over three years in order to improve living conditions.  Two thirds of the population in Gaza consisted of refugees, of whom half lived in camps.

One important concern was access to and from Gaza, she continued, noting that neither questions about the airport and seaport nor that of Rafah had been settled yet.  The link between the West Bank and Gaza was also of major concern as it would be important for the economies of both.  The evacuation of four small settlements in the West Bank had not made a big difference as settlement expansion was continuing at the same time.

She said she would present the Agency’s budget for the next biennium to the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) this week.  It had increased by 30 per cent compared to the previous budget as it incorporated post-disengagement planning for raising living standards up to local standards, including substituting double-shift schools with single-shift schools and reducing the number of patients that a single doctor was seeing each day.  The UNRWA was also trying to improve the living conditions of refugees throughout the region, including those in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as in the West Bank and Gaza.

Asked about the job-creation programme, she said it was a “rapid-action programme”, envisioning some results hopefully within a month.  In that connection, the microfinance programme played an important role as it enabled the start-up or expansion of small businesses.  Many of the jobs foreseen were in universities, NGOs or municipalities, as well as in the private sector.  Infrastructure projects undertaken by the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), among others, would also create jobs, as would an agreement on rebuilding the seaport.  With the unemployment rate in Gaza at 60 per cent, the three-year programme aimed at creating 29,000 jobs.  At the outset of the intifada, 120,000 jobs had been lost by Palestinians working in Israel.

Responding to another correspondent’s question, she said she had not visited the settlements in Gaza yet and did not know if Israel had indeed left intact public buildings such as schools.  UNRWA’s plans for improving camp infrastructure did not include settlement lands.  The Palestinian Authority had a clear plan to use those lands for high-rise housing, agriculture and tourism and the Agency would only get involved upon the request of the Palestinian Authority.

Asked if the Israeli withdrawal would have an impact on the Agency, such as scaling down, she answered that she hoped the emergency programme could be scaled down.  However, the medium-term programme, included in the budget, would go forward and there were no plans to scale down.  The UNRWA remained responsible for education, health and social services until there were no longer any refugees.  That, in turn, would not happen until final status talks had taken place and a peace settlement agreed.

UNRWA’s overall basic-services budget for this year was around $340 million and would rise to around $440 million, the Commissioner-General said in answer to another question.  For the past five years, the emergency programme had cost $200 million a year, which would be lower in the coming year.  The projects budget would cost around $60 million to $150 million a year in order to improve living conditions in the camps.

Asked about access for UNRWA, particularly in the West Bank, she said the Agency had been building houses during the intifada.  Materials did get in as the Agency had a good relationship with the Israelis and they had been very helpful during the disengagement.  Hopefully, there would be free passage to Egypt after the disengagement.

She said that even though the Israelis had withdrawn from four settlements in the West Bank, they had not changed the categorization of those areas.  Zones were categorized as A (Israeli control), B (shared control) and C (Palestinian control).  Both settlement expansion and the separation wall would make access more difficult.  More than 250,000 Palestinians were also affected by the wall.

There was not yet free access, one of the clear benefits of withdrawal, within Gaza, she said.  Many people there had been unable to get out of there for 37 years and were looking forward to be able to get in and out.  Free access would be established as soon as the Israelis had withdrawn and the date of 17 September had been mentioned in that regard.  The disengagement had gone very smoothly and quickly.

Asked whether the Palestinian Authority had offered to do anything to solve the problem of Palestinian refugees after the disengagement was complete, the Commissioner-General replied that while UNRWA provided specific services for refugees, it did not administer the camps or provided for law and order, electricity and water.  The Palestinian Authority could not change the status of Palestine refugees as that status was a matter of international law.  There would be no difference in status after disengagement.

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For information media • not an official record

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