Statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General
What next for Palestine Refugees? Gaza, the West Bank and Beyond
Middle East Institute, Washington DC,
27 October 2008
Distinguished guests and friends of UNRWA:
Thank you all for coming. Special thanks go the Middle East Institute for hosting this event and also to our co-sponsors, the Foundation for Middle East Peace and the Friends of UNRWA Association.
In the humanitarian world of assistance and protection for refugees, "what next?" is a question with a range of possible connotations. In my 19 years with UNHCR prior to joining UNRWA, I witnessed refugees from every continent going through what is often referred to as the "refugee cycle". Each of these groups of refugees suffered persecution or the fear thereof and lived through the trauma of flight, the desperation of seeking a safe place of refuge and the experience of asylum under the protection of international law.
Eventually, however, the majority of refugees experienced the relief and joy of a durable solution to their plight. Millions returned to their countries of origin, if not their original homes, to recover what was lost and to rebuild their lives in dignity. For these refugees, in spite of what they may have contended with during flight and asylum, there came a moment when the question "what next?" was posed with a sense of eager anticipation; an expectation that the conflict underlying their status as refugees was about to be peacefully resolved, allowing a spirit of compromise, reconciliation and co-existence to heal the wounds of war, and permitting a positive outlook for the future.
There are many respects in which the Palestine refugee experience departs sharply from the ‘refugee cycle’ norm. Palestinians bear the unwelcome distinction of existing in a suspended state of exile for longer than any other single group of refugees. For them, and their descendants, their status as refugees is now in its sixtieth year. The duration of their exile is only one distinguishing feature. There is, in addition, the fraught character of the Palestine refugee condition, as epitomized by the extraordinary distress of Palestinian life in the West Bank, Gaza and to a more limited extent, in Lebanon.
Against the backdrop of these features – their unparalleled period in limbo and the frequent trauma in their lives as refugees – the question "What next?" in the Palestinian context assumes overtones markedly different to those it triggers for other refugees around the world. My presentation this morning will briefly explore a few aspects of the Palestine refugee condition that are brought into sharp relief by our title.
I shall use as a starting point a brief profile of those with an immediate – though by no means exclusive – interest in the question, "What next for Palestine refugees?", namely Palestine refugees and UNRWA. I shall outline the situation facing Palestinians and Palestine refugees in Gaza and the West Bank and suggest some reasons for the pertinence and urgency of the ‘what next’ question. I shall conclude with some thoughts on the uncertainties besetting Palestinians and some actions the international community might take to address them.
Some 4.6 million Palestinians in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory are registered with UNRWA as Palestine refugees. Some Palestinians who lived through the conflict of 1948 are still with us. But as one would expect by now, a large proportion of this population consists of descendants of refugees. They, like their parents, continue to be refugees as long as a durable solution to their plight remains elusive.
Contrary to what some believe, the persistence of refugee status from older to younger generations is not a special dispensation granted to Palestinians. It is a legitimate application of the principle of family unity, which is well-established in international refugee law and practice and is a standard feature of protection for refugees around the world.
As Palestinians and Palestine refugees have grown in number, so has the proportion of children and youth. Around 45.8 percent of the population in the occupied Palestinian territory is under 15 years of age. Besides this high proportion of children and youth another notable feature of this refugee community is their high literacy level, estimated at 92.4 percent. Another interesting pointer is the combined gross enrolment for primary, secondary and tertiary education. The figure for the occupied Palestinian territory is 82.4 percent. [UNDP Human Development Report 2008, figures from 2005]
The sum of these characteristics is a refugee community alive with bright possibilities and a potential untapped. Palestine refugees reflect the passion for education, pride in self-reliance and high regard for individual achievement that are widely-recognized as attributes of Palestinians everywhere. The rationales for UNRWA’s programmes lie in seizing opportunities to build on and further cultivate these dynamic societal qualities of Palestinians. They lie also in the need to preserve those qualities in the face of the severe tests imposed by the decades-long exile and by the state of affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory in particular.
Accordingly, UNRWA’s work carves out and maintains a humanitarian space in which the refugees can receive the protection and care they need and the effects of the occupation, armed conflict and access restrictions can be mitigated.
UNRWA does its utmost not only to address refugee needs, but also to raise and maintain the standard of its services, which include primary education, primary healthcare, relief and social services, shelter and infrastructure improvement, micro-enterprise and emergency programmes.
At the same time, we are conscious of the inherent limits of our mission. Our endeavors must remain within the humanitarian and human development sphere. This means that when the question "What next?", is posed by Palestine refugees, UNRWA’s response can be only a partial one, one that addresses their specific public service requirements and emergency needs.
But what of the more comprehensive, more profound human needs, which Palestine refugees share with people everywhere? What of the Palestinian need to be treated with dignity, or the right to self-determination, as well as their fundamental human rights and freedoms and the larger protections of international law? "What next for Palestine refugees?" echoes with related unanswered questions regarding unrealized freedoms and of rights and interests denied, ignored or disregarded.
Nowhere are these questions more evident than in the occupied Palestinian territory where the years of the second intifada have seen progressively graver deterioration in the quality of Palestinian lives.
"What next for Palestine refugees?" is question posed against a backdrop of extreme human distress, a military occupation, sealed borders, a moribund economy, a splintered land progressively corroded by security zones and illegal settlements, internecine strife and the constant threat of armed conflict. It is a question encompassing within it the myriad, interrelated, uncertainties of what the future might hold. Of these, the dominant doubts are those relating to the prospects for a negotiated settlement that delivers a viable Palestinian state – a state under whose rubric the refugee issue can be justly resolved and Palestinians can reclaim their dignity as a people.
When we ponder what those prospects might be and in the process cast our eyes back at the factors that have influenced the course of the peace process, two observations come readily to mind, alongside several elements of uncertainty.
One observation relates to a varied assortment of agreements, plans, conferences and initiatives that mark the tortured path of the search for peace from 1991 to the present. The names have now acquired a familiar ring: Madrid and Oslo; the Geneva Accords; the Hebron Agreement and the Wye River Memorandum; Camp David; the Beirut Summit and the Arab Peace Initiative; the Road Map; and Annapolis.
Each of these has had its day, reflecting the prevailing wisdom of a given context and offering its own peculiar mix of political expediency, formulas for territory, prescriptions for the behavior of the parties and a supposed willingness to address key issues comprehensively. Together they represent a menu of sorts from which commentators, academics and political actors may select items of their choice according to their agendas or preferences of the day. A case in point was a report last week on the Israeli President Peres’ visit to Egypt during which he declared his preference for the Arab Peace Initiative, a preference echoed at the time by the Israeli Minister of Defense.
It is sad to consider how little these documents and summits have delivered by way of concrete, lasting results for ordinary Palestinians. There is no doubt that given the deep hunger for peace, those moments of signature and the successions of summits have been times of high hope for all Palestinians. By the same token, disappointment has been their lot as they have watched each one on the list come and go, leaving behind a military occupation that continues to strengthen and a territory that continues to shrink.
A second observation relates to the entities leading the search for peace. In recent years, and particularly since 2006, we have seen several regional and European States prepared to play a more forthright role in the process. The examples are well known. In February 2007, Saudi Arabia brokered the short-lived Mecca Agreement creating a Palestinian government of national unity. In June this year, Qatar’s mediation brought together political parties in Lebanon. The European Union, under the French Presidency, together with Turkey, recently instigated rapprochement between Syria and Lebanon; and we are seeing the fruits of Egypt’s interventions in securing agreement between Fatah and Hamas.
These developments are positive, particularly as regards the engagement of regional actors who possess resources as well as cultural affinity with Palestinians. This is, after all, a conflict with regional and international implications, one to which, in a multilateral world, several entities acting in concert could help to generate support for a balanced and courageous stance in the interests of all parties.
I will now speak briefly to the currents of uncertainty surrounding efforts towards a negotiated settlement. A principal one pertains to foreseen transitions in regional and international political leadership over the coming months and the likelihood of policy shifts that may - or may not - auger well for a meaningful negotiated settlement. We in UNRWA tend to err on the side of optimism. We hope that recent reports of the breakthrough in the efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah will prove to be well-founded and that the Gaza ceasefire will continue to hold. We trust that the combination of these two events will provide a sufficiently solid rationale for policy shifts in a positive direction that meet the interests of Palestinians and Israelis alike.
While this remains our hope, optimism [even of the hardy UNRWA kind,] cannot disregard the lessons of long experience. One must therefore pay heed to another current of uncertainty and risk, which is the spectre of extremism that haunts the occupied Palestinian territory and other parts of the region.
The invasive Israeli military presence in Palestinian territory is alive and well and its destructive human and socio-economic consequences provide a ready pretext for justifying militant reactions. In Gaza, the indiscriminate suffering caused by the closure of its borders and the absence, in spite of the ceasefire, of any significant relaxation of the blockade, serve as a rallying cry for those who spurn a negotiated compromise. The repression of Palestinians in the West Bank and the continued closure of Gaza’s borders are irreconcilable with considerations of "humanity". For that reason alone, they are contrary to the interests of a peaceful settlement as they feed a sense of historical injustice, which in turn encourages recourse to arms and a rejection of any agreement produced through negotiation.
The continuation of the occupation and the absence of a solution hold numerous other risks for a future Palestinian state. Unemployment and poverty reign, with all the human indignities they entail. The longer the borders are closed and movement restricted, the deeper and more difficult it will be to reverse the damage done to industry, commerce, agriculture and public services. In human and economic terms, the full costs of these measures are incalculable.
Just as profound and far reaching are the implications the existing west Bank regime might have for the viability of a future Palestinian state. How can such a fractured and economically weak entity serve as a foundation for a State of Palestine? With this question in mind, it should come as no surprise that the notion of a ‘one state’ solution is being raised with increasing interest and even urgency.
Allow me to refer to one more element of uncertainty which I have had occasion to speak to elsewhere. This is the risk associated with a failure to secure for Palestine refugees a channel to ensure that their concerns and interests are addressed in the negotiation process. The refugee question has been identified as one of the "final status" issues the parties must address within the framework of a comprehensive peace agreement.
The refugee voice – if not a presence – at the negotiating table is imperative if any such agreement is to be just, durable and acceptable to those in whose name it is signed. I speak again from my pre-Palestinian experience when I say that any genuine agreement on solutions to refugee situations should involve the informed consent of refugees themselves. The process for Palestine refugees should be no different. Neglecting to include refugees in charting a course for their own future would be to risk much.
Allied to participation and informed consent is free choice, which is an essential requirement in any dispensation that delivers a just and lasting settlement for Palestine refugees. In some quarters the discourse on solutions tends to dwell excessively on dogma about the identity of one state or another, or on speculative assumptions about demographic factors and the supposed courses of action that refugees might choose. These approaches fail to enlighten and do not give a role to those whose right it is to decide, namely the refugees themselves. Speaking once again from past experience, I should say that when we afford them the freedom to choose, refugees often confound us with the wisdom of their decisions.
"What next for Palestine refugees?" is a question not only on the lips of Palestine refugees, but also on the minds of all who believe that armed conflict, injustice and human suffering have no place in today’s world.
My opening remarks referred to how, at some point in the experience of other refugees, the question in our title is posed with a sense of positive anticipation. In the Palestinian situation the question "what next?" acquires mixed overtones; fleeting glimpses of possible breakthroughs are overlain with uncertainty, anxiety and perhaps even a measure of weary dread about yet another disappointment.
The global resonance of Palestinian issues is such that each of us gathered here today has a stake in contributing to a better future for this beleaguered community. The uncertainties and risks I have mentioned are real and daunting, yet they are in our power as an international community to address, each of us playing a particular role.
UNRWA stands ready to do its part. We will keep faith with Palestine refugees as they face a future replete with risks. We remain devoted to seeking their protection and well-being through our programmes and will endeavor, through reforms, to maintain the quality of our work. We call on our donors to retain their confidence in UNRWA and to ensure that their generosity matches the growing needs of refugees. We ask them also to bear in mind the contribution our humanitarian work makes to promoting an environment for compromise and moderation.
The international community must also do its part to promote reconciliation between the major Palestinian parties and to resolve, peacefully and in a balance manner, the political and territorial disputes underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The calm currently prevailing offers a rare opportunity to end decades of bloodshed and broken promises of peace. Let us not spurn this chance to liberate Palestinians from the unfulfilled freedoms which bind their potential. And let us do what we can to give Palestinians what other refugees have: a realistic prospect for a life of dignity free from fear and uncertainty as citizens in a State of their own.