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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
11 September 2008

UNRWA Commissioner-General’s Opening remarks

Centre d'Analyse et Previson

Paris, 11 September 2008

I am pleased to have the opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the situation of Palestine refugees whose welfare and protection lie at the heart of UNRWA’s mandate. These refugees number over 4.5 million and are now in their sixtieth year of exile in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.

I would like to make a brief presentation before our ‘debate’ by outlining four closely related features that in my view underlie the difficulty of the Palestine refugee situation and its resistance to resolution. These features point to areas I believe the international community should address if the prospects for a solution are to be enhanced.

One principal feature is the degree to which significant political actors and their national interests have become identified with either protagonist in this conflict. Whether this is by virtue of historical or religious associations, or through conscious policy decisions, the result is a dearth of entities able to serve as neutral, or at least impartial arbiters and to command the deference of both sides in that vital role.

Accordingly, there have been long periods when the course of the conflict—and indeed the condition of Palestinians and Palestine refugees—have been determined solely by the unilateral actions of one side of the other, unaffected by the collective authority of the international community.

One result has been the creation of ‘facts on the ground’ (e.g. the wall, settlement expansion, roadblocks and checkpoints) inimical to Palestinian rights and interest, difficult to reverse and therefore obstructive to the search for solutions.

A second feature is the subjection of Palestinians and Palestine refugees to extensive violations of their human rights (particularly notable during the 60th anniversary of the UDHR). The Palestinian experience in the west Bank, for example, is one where freedom of movement is curtailed to a degree that would simply not be tolerated anywhere else in the world. The demolition of Palestinian homes, frequent arrests and imprisonment of Palestinians (11,000 or so at any one time) without charge or trial and generalized harassment and humiliation are further examples of abuses. There is an atmosphere of oppression (and occupation) that cannot be reconciled with peaceful solutions—or even a functioning economy or a viable state.

Also worth highlighting as a third feature is the fragmented state of the Palestinian body politic. The gulf between Hamas and Fatah is widening at a time when the need for a unified Palestinian front has never been greater. This conflict within a conflict diverts attention from the larger Palestinian cause. It deprives Palestinians of the power that comes from full representation and a concerted stand, creating a risk that any understandings reached through the various peace process initiatives could and will be questioned—and almost certainly rejected—by a significant portion of the Palestinian community.

A fourth feature of concern is the subordination of humanitarian questions to policy—and political—decisions. The siege of Gaza is a tragic case in point. The closure of Gaza’s borders has inflicted severe human suffering and is causing irreparable harm to the economy and to Palestinian lives and livelihoods. It is especially sad that contrary to clear understandings between the parties, the siege is still in place even though the informal ceasefire is being observed. Given the human impact of the closure of Gaza’s borders, there can be no justification for continuing to hold the people of Gaza in bondage. It is time the international community gave due precedence to humanitarian imperatives in Gaza.

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