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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
27 January 2009

Statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General, Karen AbuZayd

United Nations Security Council Closed Consultations Session

New York, 27 January 2009

Mr. President, distinguished members of the Security Council:

At the outset, allow me to thank you for your kind invitation to address you today on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. I am honored to be the first Commissioner-General of UNRWA to be given this privilege.

I also want to express my appreciation for the amount of attention the Council has devoted to the Gaza conflict and its aftermath. The strong expressions of support heard from many members for the work of the United Nations on the ground have been very gratifying to all of us there.

Mr. President, distinguished members,

I come to you from UNRWA Headquarters in Gaza where I spent the first week of the recent war and the first week after the cease fire. I bring with me perspectives from our sixty year old humanitarian and human development Agency whose mandate is to assist and protect a population of 4.6 million refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory. I come to share with you what UNRWA, and the refugees we serve, are thinking and feeling in this time of distress. I hope I can convey compellingly our, and their, messages to you this afternoon.

In my tours around Gaza since the ceasefire of 18 January, I have been deeply saddened to see what appears to have been systematic destruction to schools, universities, residential buildings, factories, shops and farms. I have observed the atmosphere of shock and sorrow among the people of Gaza. Every Gazan projects a sense of having stared death in the face. Every Gazan has a tale of profound grief to tell. There is rage against the attackers for often failing to distinguish between military targets and civilians and there is also resentment against the international community for having allowed first the siege and then the war to go on for so long.

Yet, my interaction with Palestinians in Gaza has also evinced their fortitude, their determination to overcome the pain of loss and their belief in the possibilities of rebuilding their lives. I hope the international community will respond with urgency and resolve, to take advantage of the opportunities to generate recovery and renewal in Gaza.

To seize these opportunities, political action is needed to create the conditions that will allow humanitarian and human development activities to have maximum impact on Palestinian lives. The priority for early recovery is to attend to basic human needs and basic rights such as education, health care and the right to work. In the simplest terms, the way forward is to help restore normal life to Gaza.

UNRWA’s early recovery activities are already underway. Two hundred thousand refugee children were assisted to return to school last Saturday, while the 50,000 displaced Palestinians who took refuge in UNRWA classrooms are being helped to rebuild their lives at home or in alternative accommodation. We have prepared a Quick Response Plan whose main components include restoring and strengthening primary education and primary health care; establishing emergency food aid, cash assistance and job creation programmes; repairing civilian homes and UNRWA facilities; supporting humanitarian community-based organizations; providing environmental health services in alliance with municipal authorities; and offering psycho-social support to the most traumatized Gazans, including to children in UNRWA schools. Ssurveys have shown that the majority of Gazans suffer from shock and are clinically depressed

This work is made possible by the extraordinarily generous donor response to our Flash Appeal, including substantial pledges from the Arab world. Given UNRWA’s recurrent financial shortfalls, particularly for its General Fund, these strong levels of support are most appreciated.

Mr. President, distinguished members,

Beyond UNRWA’s focus on refugees, a coordinated inter-agency response is central to the success of the recovery process. This will harness the varied capabilities of the United Nations system, working in partnership with the Palestinian Authority, the World Bank and donor countries.

UNRWA’s own approach to recovery and reconstruction is incremental, service driven and designed to build on the substantial human development investments the international community has made in Gaza over the years. We consider this approach the most effective route to making normal life possible for Palestinians in Gaza. The surest path to calm and stability is to create social and economic conditions in which Palestinians can sustain themselves and their families in dignity.

There are challenges, however, that go well beyond the humanitarian realm. They lie in the province of political action. For this reason, it is on this Council and its esteemed members that part of the burden of restoring normalcy to Gaza rests. This burden is a heavy one, but it is far from insurmountable if we act in concert in the following well-known areas:

From UNRWA’s operational vantage point, addressing these issues is fundamental to the success of early recovery and human development work. Recovery requires the free inflow of humanitarian and commercial supplies. Reconstruction demands open borders that enable the importation of construction materials and the export of products and goods from Gaza. Job creation programmes will be fruitless without a self-sustaining employment market. And our plans to strengthen primary education will be undermined if we fail to offer the children of Gaza a horizon of hope for a future free from fear, free from poverty and full of promise.

Mr. President, distinguished members of the Security Council:

Throughout those days of violence, the humanitarian work of the United Nations persevered, illustrating in concrete, often heroic, ways, commitment to the principles of humanity on which the UN Charter is based. UNRWA staff ran the gauntlet of shelling, aerial bombardments and small arms fire to attend to the injured and to deliver food and fuel to hospitals, municipalities and to the people of Gaza. It is a matter of deep regret that four UNRWA staff, two while on duty, lost their lives in this conflict.

The United Nations can be proud, as I am proud, that during the conflict, courage and dedication to service, hallmarks of UNRWA staff performance for six decades, were very much in evidence.

As to the broader implications of the recent experience in Gaza, it is worth recalling that for more than sixty years, the Security Council has wrestled with the issues of Palestinians and Palestine refugees as classic questions of international peace and security. What we witnessed in Gaza seared the global conscience with harrowing images of broken bodies and shattered homes, of thousands of Palestinian and tens of Israeli civilians – men, women and children – wounded, dying and fleeing from indiscriminate violence. The guns have fallen silent, but the images linger, reminding us of the futility of seeking military solutions to political problems and of the perils of political inaction.

These images and the human suffering they represent are the result of our failure to protect those who have no part and no stake in armed conflict. And I am afraid this war will be remembered for the absence of restraint among the combatants and disregard for principles of humanity and the sanctity of human life.

Equally disturbing is that besides its devastating impact on civilian lives and infrastructure, the conflict has placed in further jeopardy the authority of international law in the Middle East. It has raised hard questions about the ability of the community of States to be effective in its role as the custodian of international legality in this particular regional context.

Finally, there are the ultimate challenges highlighted by this conflict, namely the need to tackle the long-unfinished business of ensuring a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees and to re-double efforts to establish a viable Palestinian State, living in peace and security with Israel.

Mr. President, distinguished members of the Council:

We in UNRWA will persist in our devotion to the service of Palestine refugees. We will continue to discharge our mandate in a manner that promotes the inherent dignity and worth of the Palestinians we serve.

Yet that "dignity and worth" are not ours alone to promote. Palestinians and Palestine refugees are assured of UNRWA’s help, but their greater need is to have the demonstrated support of the international community, as represented by the Security Council.

In the months to come, as we build on the fragile ceasefire achieved following the passage of Resolution 1860, continued engagement by the Security Council will be of utmost importance.

UNRWA appeals to you, as the body that sits at the pinnacle of multilateral power, to exercise your authority in ways that transform into reality the shared dream of both Israelis and Palestinians for a secure, peaceful and prosperous tomorrow.

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