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




Lecture by UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd

University of Tokyo Public Forum

Palestine refugees: changing circumstances and prospects for human security

5 October, 2007

Thank you, Professor Kimura for your introduction. Thank you, Professor Endo and Mr. Koda for your warm words of welcome. My appreciation also goes to the Graduate Programme on Human Security, the University of Tokyo and the United Nations Information Centre for organizing this event.

Distinguished guests:

On behalf of the Palestine refugees UNRWA serves, and on my own behalf, I thank the University of Tokyo for inviting me to share my thoughts today. On the face of things, it may appear that the Palestinian issue is well known across the globe. Almost everyone has seen images or read stories about the massive refugee population whose flight was triggered by the conflict of 1948 and which today, fifty-nine years later and 4.4 million strong, continues to languish in exile in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian struggle for statehood is also well known. There are few who have not heard of Palestinian resistance to decades of occupation, the tragedy of frequent encounters with the effects of armed conflict on civilians, their constant wrestling with poverty and international isolation, and the endless cycles of meetings, conferences, declarations and peace initiatives which are yet to bear fruit. (We are hopeful that the November meeting in the United States will bring a hopeful new beginning or restarting of the peace process.)

There is a level of universal awareness about the broad outlines of the Palestine refugee issue. The question is the extent to which that awareness speaks to a deeper understanding of the plight of refugees and the situation Palestinians face. Our discussion tonight/today affords us an opportunity to fill in the outlines, advancing our appreciation of the issues as we clarify them with perspectives from UNRWA’s experience.

I will begin my remarks with a few general observations about the concept of human security and use those observations as a point of departure to outline aspects of UNRWA’s work. I will then offer highlights of the situation currently facing Palestinians and Palestine refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, and reflect on the variance between the concept of human security and the realties of life in the occupied Palestinian territory. This will lead us to consider, by way of conclusion, a few messages or lessons that the Palestine refugee situation might contribute to our quest for human security (as is the case, in fact, for all refugee situations).

Many of you will be aware that my Agency operates in five locations already mentioned: Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. I will focus on the West Bank and Gaza for the obvious reason that the extreme challenges in these locations make them more germane to our discussion on human security. In Lebanon, this summer’s extensive damage to the Nahr El Bared camp means that the reconstruction effort and the return of displaced refugees will take some time. While the situation in Lebanon offers interesting angles for analysis, I do not intend to dwell on it here, though I would be happy to respond to any questions you might have. With regard to Jordan and Syria, I would ask you to bear in mind that while Palestine refugees in those countries face less dramatic circumstances than elsewhere in the region, their material conditions still leave much to be desired. There is considerable room for enhancing refugees’ human security, as in raising their standard of living, expanding their possibilities for economic self-reliance and for improving the quality of our services.

I do not presume to offer an authoritative definition of the concept of human security, as there are many in our audience, and on this platform, who are better qualified to do that. What I will do is draw on UNRWA’s humanitarian and human development experience since 1950, to identify certain features of human security on which I hope we can all agree. From the vantage point of our experience, I would say that the goal of human security corresponds to the attainment of realizable human aspirations. Freedom from occupation, poverty and fear; freedom from armed conflict; freedom to choose one’s own government and to pursue economic, social and cultural development in peace with other nations: these are fundamental human desires that are integral – if not central – to the concept of human security. Seen from this angle, human security is inseparable from the protections of international law and the realization of human rights norms, even though it occupies a much broader conceptual and practical space.

Within the human security construct, individuals - as well as States - are subjects of international law and direct beneficiaries of the rule of law. States bear primary responsibility for enabling the fulfillment of the rights and freedoms that ensure human security. I use the word "primary" to qualify State responsibility because in an interdependent world of interlinked interests, the international community also bears a collective duty to ensure the conditions in which human security can thrive. When people become refugees by fleeing from their homes to avoid conflict, human rights violations and persecution, they do not forego their entitlement to protection and human security. On the contrary, that entitlement is preserved through an alliance of actors - host countries, non-governmental organizations, and U.N. agencies – working in mutually reinforcing roles. These include protection, humanitarian, development and political functions that are underpinned by international law.

The task entrusted to UNRWA by the international community is to respond to the humanitarian and human development needs of Palestine refugees. While our services have evolved over the years, a constant feature of our work has been to enhance the well-being and skills of refugees to build their capacity to become self-reliant. We look beyond today, keeping in view the prospect of a time when Palestine refugees can contribute their knowledge and skills to a viable Palestinian State.

Each year, UNRWA’s schools seek to enhance the learning potential of approximately five hundred thousand refugee children, half of whom are girls. Conscious of the volatile and conflict-ridden environment in which they live, we devote considerable resources to giving them contemporary, marketable skills while pioneering courses to promote human rights, tolerance and peaceful conflict resolution. UNRWA’s 127 clinics contribute to the physical and mental well-being of refugees through comprehensive primary health care, and to a limited extent, hospitalization and other services. We count among our achievements the eradication of communicable diseases and nearly 100% childhood vaccinations. We offer food and social services to the poorest of the poor, those vulnerable families experiencing particular hardship, the widows, the elderly and the handicapped.

UNRWA constructs and repairs homes and provides sewerage and environmental health services to structures in the 58 refugee camps in our areas of operation, where, by the way, only one-third of Palestine refugees live. Our microfinance service offers financial assistance as well as advice and training to those able to sustain themselves and their families with small enterprises. And when – as sadly happens all too often - armed conflict triggers emergency situations in Gaza, the West Bank or Lebanon, our programmes for temporary employment, cash assistance, food distribution and shelter provision assist refugees to cope better with heightened hardships, contributing to the refugees’ survival and helping to avert disaster.

My Agency’s humanitarian work is reinforced by our role as a global advocate for the protection and care of Palestine refugees. Our extensive field presence, with some 27,000 staff, most of them Palestine refugees themselves, gives us unique, first-hand insights into the living conditions of refugees and the threats they face from de-facto sanctions and armed conflict. Drawing on these insights, we call the attention of regional and international actors to the harsh realities faced by Palestine refugees, including conditions that compromise their human dignity and violate their human rights.

UNRWA reminds these actors of the responsibilities they bear under international law to eschew the use of force and to give precedence to peaceful methods for resolving disputes; to make choices – particularly in times of armed conflict – that minimize human suffering, protect civilian lives, and demonstrate restraint and proportionality. At every appropriate opportunity, we demand that concerned authorities and States take steps to safeguard livelihoods, promote humane socio-economic conditions, and to move with genuine commitment towards a just and lasting resolution of the plight of refugees.

Our sister UN agencies and donors support the non-refugee population in a variety of vital sectors while international and local non-governmental agencies also do their part. For example, Japan’s contributions to the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security have enabled UNRWA and other UN agencies to provide essential psycho-social counseling and remedial education to refugees in the West Bank, and to construct much-needed social infrastructure in Gaza.

In dollar terms, donor assistance to the occupied Palestinian territory has recently seen considerable increases. In the 20 months between January 2006 and September 2007, 490 million dollars in emergency assistance was channeled through the Consolidated Appeal of UN agencies. During the same period, some 509 million dollars of aid was channeled through the European Union’s Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) to support emergency financing of essential services and social hardship cases. These flows of assistance are substantial by any measure. Given the magnitude of humanitarian assistance, it would be logical to expect the people of the occupied Palestinian territory to be reaping benefits in the form of improvements in the quality of their lives and enhanced human security.

It is sad to say that in this respect as in many others, the situation of refugees and other Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank defeats logic and confounds reason. In the circumstances that have prevailed at least since the year 2000, humanitarian assistance has helped - in many cases significantly - to mitigate the daily hardships that armed conflict, isolation and de facto sanctions have visited upon Palestinians. For these reasons, and as long as the refugee issue remains unresolved, UNRWA’s humanitarian and human development activities will continue to be justified, indeed necessary, and worthy of donor support. However, In terms of positive improvements in Palestinian lives, it would seem that the outcomes have not been proportionate to the humanitarian effort. What are the main features of the current situation and what are some of the reasons why this disproportion exists?

Since the second intifada began in September 2000, Palestinians have been on a wild rollercoaster ride, a ride on which the dips and depressions have far outnumbered the highs and moments of hope. They have absorbed – and continue to experience - military incursions in which civilian lives, livelihoods and property have been destroyed, and to which they have responded with the continuous firing of Qassam rockets into Israel. They had a taste of euphoria with the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from within and around Gaza and felt a sense of accomplishment with the free and fair elections of January 2006. With the formation of a government of national unity in March 2007, they dared to hope for a promising new beginning, only to endure a major incursion in the summer of 2006 and the worst ever internal conflict in June of this year. These desperate twists form the gist of "changing circumstances": the misleadingly anodyne phrase in our topic for this morning.

In sharp contrast to the deadly fratricide of last June, the Gaza of today wears a veneer of surreal calm. The questions on the lips of every Palestinian are: How long will the calm hold, and how much longer will the rift between the West Bank and Gaza last and how much deeper might it become?

The state of affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory and in Gaza may be illustrated by reference to the socio-economic situation and the closure regime. Most socio-economic indicators point to grave and rapidly worsening conditions. Although public sector salaries are now being paid, the effects of denying full salaries to 160,000 civil servants for the better part of 15 months are still being felt. Over 30% of Palestinians live below the poverty line. In Gaza the poverty rate exceeds 80%, while the World Bank estimates unemployment at 44% in 2007. The effect of poverty on households is aggravated by sharp increases and fluctuations in the prices of essential food and household commodities. In the period between January and September 2007, Gazans saw the price of wheat flour increase by 21.6 %, poultry by 27 %, and animal feed by some 40%. It should come as no surprise that food insecurity is as high as 77% in northern Gaza, where the destruction of crops and arable land during Israeli incursions have taken a crushing toll on livelihoods. 80% of Gazan residents receive some form of assistance from the United Nations. An increasing number of Palestinians are receiving food assistance - nearly two million of them, with the number set to rise by close to thousands more if the current crisis persists. There is dual irony in the fact that the fruits stalls are well-stocked because the export of Gaza produce is barred by the closure of Karni crossings, while much of the merchandise brought in by enterprising traders remains out of reach for Gaza’s teeming poor.

As regards the closure regime, it is worth repeating that Palestine is an occupied territory. The land borders, airspace and territorial sea have long been, and continue to be, under the ironclad control of the occupying power. This control manifests itself in sophisticated, comprehensive and severe restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and their goods, with a corresponding regime of permits and complex administrative controls.

The Karni crossing, Gaza’s main access point for commercial goods, and the Rafah crossing, the principal access point for the movement of people have been completely closed since June this year. The impact of these closures is easy to imagine. The flow of commerce is stifled. Export earnings are drying up, depriving farmers and other producers of the income to care for their families and lift the economy. Gaza is being throttled of its capacity to sustain its people, let alone rescue its economy from chronic regression and dependency on international aid. The closure of Karni crossing is also affecting humanitarian and development operations. Some 213 million dollars worth of infrastructure and employment projects have been disrupted, of which 93 million dollars were UNRWA’s alone. These programmes would have helped to build schools, houses and other essential infrastructure, to provide employment and to help raise living standards.

In the West Bank, Palestinians are subject to a stringent closure regime epitomized by the separation barrier. Despite having been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, this distressing monument to restricted movement and land expropriation has attained 408 kilometers in length and continues to grow, devastating Palestinian lives and livelihoods across the West Bank.

A large proportion of the barrier is built on Palestinian land, thus intruding upon and effectively expropriating some 640 square kilometres of West Bank territory, including in East Jerusalem. 5% of the West Bank’s agricultural land has been lost due to the construction of the barrier. Even now, before the barrier is completed, more than 60,000 people living in the area between the barrier and the Green Line (the 1967 border) – as well as half a million Palestinians living within a kilometre of the barrier inside the West Bank – are experiencing impediments in their access to families, markets, schools and hospitals. The farmers among them are not able to reach the land and water they need to maintain their families and livelihoods. The separation barrier is also causing displacement as families and communities under pressure of the closure regime abandon their homes to seek a less oppressive environment.

Before I leave the subject of the West Bank, allow me to highlight two especially worrying aspects of the closure regime, one of which is its progressive tightening over time. Road blocks and checkpoints have increased in number from 396 in November of 2005 to 563 in September 2007. These increases have taken place in tandem with a reduction in crossing points through the barrier and the introduction of digitized permit and identification procedures for Palestinians. Those travelling between the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been particularly hard-hit by the new procedures. 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. UNRWA staff are also affected along with other Palestinians. The closure regime means that our staff (350 alone who come from West Bank into Jerusalem each day) take longer to commute to and from work, and in some cases will be denied access to places where they are needed to deliver essential services to Palestine refugees.

Another worrying aspect is the link between the tightening closure regime, the relentless growth of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and the fragmentation of the West Bank. A useful source of information 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.

Settlement activity is contrary to international law and violates express undertakings made in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The population of Israeli settlers on Palestinian land has nevertheless continued to grow 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 constricting the living space available to Palestinians.

The OCHA report I cited collates various primary sources to show that the totality of locations from which Palestinians are barred or to which they have restricted access - settlements, outposts, military bases, restricted military areas, settler roads - take up some 38% of West Bank. In addition to violating fundamental Palestinian rights and freedoms, settlement activity and the closure regime have splintered the West Bank to a point where its territorial integrity is compromised, and grave doubts cast on its prospects of functioning as a viable political and economic unit.

Distinguished guests:

The question arising from this overview is the extent to which the conditions in Gaza and the West Bank are compatible with the concept of human security. The answer is obvious. Very few of the elements of realizable human aspirations are available to the people of the occupied Palestinian territory. The freedoms that are fundamental to human dignity and humane conditions of life are conspicuous by their absence. Palestinians are a people whose freedom of movement is deliberately denied in multiple and blatant ways. In place of freedom from poverty and economic freedoms, they face economic stagnation, food insecurity, unemployment and dependence on foreign aid. In the context of occupation and in the absence of a State of Palestine, what passes for the exercise of political freedoms are in fact homage to form and process. In reality and in substance, the right of Palestinians to be led by an independent, sovereign government of their choice is still elusive.

For many years, the occupied Palestinian territory has been a theatre of armed conflict in which civilian lives and property are exposed to extraordinary levels of risk. In this environment, one would have expected a call upon international law. The opposite has occurred. The conflict in Gaza and the West Bank is a poor advertisement for the efficacy of international law. It is also a sad commentary on the willingness of the international community to assert its role as a guarantor and enforcer of international law. At best, flagrant and habitual violations on both sides trigger insipid protestations. At worst, they are greeted with silence.

The decision by the Israeli cabinet to officially declare the Gaza strip a "hostile entity" illustrates several dimensions of the actions that have contributed to the gulf between human security and the Palestinian condition. "Hostile entity" is a definition which enables Israel to threaten to restrict services, food, water, fuel, electricity and other supplies and services—even banking-- to Gaza. It was reported that a statement from the Ministry of Defence explained that the measures under the declaration would be implemented after a review of its legal implications, and that the need to avoid a humanitarian crises would be taken into account.

This declaration does little for the unity of the West Bank and Gaza as constituent components of a territorial unit. On the contrary, it implicitly accentuates the divide. More than that, this declaration insinuates that Palestinians and the world at large are powerless to intervene, regardless of what consequences might befall ordinary Palestinians. It is a pronouncement of the control of the occupying power, an assertion of its intention to use its power – with impunity - to deepen the misery of those living under its occupation. The declaration also furnishes us with examples of how language is employed to distort reality, to conceal real intentions and thus to disguise actions that deepen the tragedy of Palestine. The reference to the declaration as "a legal definition" suggests that it is presumably permissible under Israeli law. This obscures the fact that it violates the occupying power’s obligations under international humanitarian law and is therefore illegal.

Another interesting aspect is that the "hostile entity" declaration was accompanied by pledges that the "humanitarian needs" of Gazans would be addressed. This is inherently contradictory. Approval for actions that exacerbate the suffering of Palestinians cannot be reconciled with expressions of sympathy for their plight. The reference to addressing humanitarian needs raises two questions that are pertinent to a discussion on human security. One is whether humanitarian needs can be meaningfully addressed in an environment where fuel, electricity, water and other essential supplies are threatened. Even if one assumes this could be done, the further question is whether dealing with humanitarian needs somehow excuses the imposition of severe measures on other sectors of Palestinian life. UNRWA’s experience points strongly to the contrary.

I alluded to this earlier when I stated that a significant increase in international assistance in 2006 did not result in proportionate improvements in the economy or living conditions of Palestinians. My point is that human security is a composite state that is indivisible. The components that work together to deliver a state of human security cannot be separated one from the other without nullifying the whole. In this regard, it is futile to seek to address humanitarian needs while fundamental rights and freedoms are suppressed or violated; while the infrastructure for a self-sustaining economy are systematically dismantled; or while the full realization of self determination for Palestinians is denied.

The composite character of human security mirrors the network of shared interests that underpin State security. We live in an interdependent world that thrives on reciprocal interests, none more so than the interests that bind the nations of the Middle East to each other and to the international community at large. This unity of interests argues against policies of isolation or collective punishment towards the occupied Palestinian territory or any part thereof. As I have said elsewhere, when Palestinians suffer, the international community also suffers because we cannot insulate ourselves from the consequences of Palestinian frustration, anger and rage.

By a similar token, the human security of Palestinians is ultimately linked to that of their neighbours. In an environment where Palestinian rights and freedoms are regularly breached, neither Palestinians not the violators of their rights can feel secure. Arguments of State security cannot justify human rights violations, because respect for the human rights of Palestinians is essential to state security. The human security concept argues powerfully that no State or entity that habitually violates human rights can be safe, and no State can achieve true security in isolation from its neighbours. In effect, the ultimate guarantee of State security is human security - the safety, economic self-sufficiency and protection of people within and around it.

I will conclude by emphasising the role of the international community, and I repeat, as an impartial sponsor of peace, an enforcer of international law and a guarantor of human security. In the challenged environment of the West Bank and Gaza, these roles must be tackled with great urgency. That urgency should be fuelled by recognition of the unity of interests that bind the peoples of Israel and Palestine. The international community should understand the need to ensure equity in its approach to addressing the concerns and aspirations of both sides. It must build on this understanding to safeguard the rights and freedoms of Palestinians and thus place them on the path to human security. This is an essential step in the direction of a just and lasting peace, and one UNRWA would like to take in partnership with Japan, a country well placed to help move this long-awaited and much-desired process forward.


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