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

Statement by Karen AbuZayd, UNRWA Commissioner-General
Welfare Association Dinner
Four Seasons Hotel, Amman, 29 May 2009

Chairman Nabil Qaddumi, distinguished members of the Welfare Association:

Thank you for extending to me the honour of sharing this evening with you. Your invitation signifies the empathy the Welfare Association and its distinguished members have for Palestine refugees, your concern for their well-being and your appreciation for UNRWA’s work in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.

As is well, known my Agency is not - and was never intended to be - an end in itself. UNRWA’s purpose is to provide Palestine refugees with humanitarian and human development services that help them achieve self reliance and dignified lives.

I often speak about solidarity with Palestine refugees, drawing confidence from the several dimensions of common ground other organizations, including the Welfare Association, share with UNRWA. I will devote a part of my remarks to reflecting, from UNRWA’s point of view, on a few of these areas of convergence, and touch as well on some distinctions. I will also share some thoughts on how the partnership we enjoy can be further strengthened to serve better the interests of Palestinians and Palestine refugees, particularly those residing in the occupied Palestinian territory.

I take as a point of departure the character and profile of the Association’s distinguished membership. In terms of individual and professional achievements, your membership demonstrates accomplishments that would be notable anywhere in the world.

If I may recall, the conflicts of 1948 and 1967 were events whose effects will remain with us until a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian plight allows a genuine healing process to commence. The weight of that experience is evidenced not least by the population of 4.6 million refugees, whose exiled lives bear witness to dispossession in a context where occupation, armed conflict and the denial of human rights are a constant reality.

In spite of these burdens of Palestinian history, proof of success and traditions of excellence are also a part of the Palestinian experience. In this regard, the Welfare Association is an expression of the Palestinian spirit and an illustration of what Palestinians can achieve if they are given the freedom and opportunity to explore their horizons fully.

In several respects, the character and profile of the Welfare Association offer instructive parallels for UNRWA and its work. I cite as an example our primary education programme, which is our largest, offering primary and preparatory education for nearly five-hundred thousand children – half of them girls - across the region. As we continue to strive for high levels of quality in every aspect of teaching and learning, we remain conscious that among the programme’s greatest assets is the high social value placed on education by the Palestinian community.

We see in our schools daily evidence that the communal esteem ascribed to learning is still very much alive in Palestinian society. And we observe each day how refugee children, including those affected by deep poverty, are motivated by a thirst for education and knowledge, seeing these as vehicles towards the dignity of a self-reliant life. These children, as well as their parents, can draw inspiration from the Welfare Association and what its members, individually and collectively, symbolize.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of Palestinian role models whose accomplishments have been won through embracing – and excelling in - a contemporary, multi-cultural environment where diverse world views peacefully co-exist, even if they may be in competition. Particularly in the occupied Palestinian territory, and to a lesser extent in Lebanon, the forces of extremism and militancy feed on the poverty and despair engendered by the occupation and the consequent economic malaise.

To help counter these adverse trends, it has become increasingly critical to focus on the needs of children and youth. In Syria, UNRWA has established a "Youth and Business" initiative which enhances access for young refugee adults to private-sector opportunities. In our primary schools, we seek to bolster the appreciation of human rights, tolerance and the peaceful resolution of conflict, using a specially developed curriculum. UNRWA also serves as a channel for the ideals and values that lie at the core of the principles of the United Nations Charter. In these ways, we encourage refugee children to look beyond the grimness of their immediate circumstances and to ground their thought and action in the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled. Violations of international law abound in the occupied Palestinian territory, yet these cannot erase or extinguish Palestinian rights – rights that remain inalienable until they are realized.

I must mention a further point of intersection between our respective organizations. Like the Welfare Association, UNRWA is non-political in nature and orientation. Our mandate rests on humanitarian and human development work and is underpinned by core United Nations precepts of neutrality and impartiality.

In the turbulent climate of the Middle East, these are anchors of UNRWA’s credibility and its ability to maintain the confidence of host countries, donors and other stakeholders. At the same time, the dire human rights situation faced by Palestinians and Palestine refugees underscore as well the importance of the protection and advocacy function. In keeping with that function, UNRWA will continue to call on the international community to do more to protect Palestinian civilians and to accelerate the search for a negotiated end to the conflict. This point bears stressing because it is often misunderstood by UNRWA’s critics. The large unresolved questions of regional conflict, the peace process and the long-elusive quest for a Palestinian state are constant undercurrents to UNRWA’s work and remain the ultimate challenge to the situation of refugees across our area of operations. Although these questions are within the purview of States and other political actors to resolve, they are nevertheless matters which UNRWA, in the proper and legitimate exercise of its refugee protection and advocacy role, can – and often does - appeal directly to political entities.

It may well be that this is an area where UNRWA’s scope for action as a UN entity directly obligated by the UN Charter’s provisions diverges from the Welfare Association’s modus operandi. There are other elements of difference such as the Association’s all-important commitment to preserving and enhancing Palestinian identity and culture, and dissimilarity in our respective structures and funding arrangements.

UNRWA, while remaining open to working in concert with other entities, delivers its services directly to refugees through its 29,000 Palestine refugee staff – teachers, doctors, sanitation workers and engineers, social welfare experts. In recent years an effort has been made to train staff in leadership and management skills and to draw them increasingly into decision-making and planning at all levels. In fact, UNRWA’s planning and management is now a subject of consultation with the refugees themselves, as a participatory, bottom-up approach becomes the method of choice to ensure acceptance, ownership and, we hope, enthusiasm for mutually agreed objectives and goals.

UNRWA relies on voluntary donations from States for over 96 per cent of its funding - with all the financial uncertainties that entails. By contrast, the Welfare Association works through implementing partners and is a private, non-governmental organization which largely finances itself from the resourcefulness of its membership.

It seems to me that far from being of any negative consequence, these distinctions between our respective agencies highlight the complementarity of our efforts. They suggest that there is mutual benefit for us, for Palestinians and for Palestine refugees, if we further explore areas for common endeavors. With this possibility in mind, and also to give you a feel for our operations, I will offer a brief word on our concerns across UNRWA’s five fields.

In Lebanon, the reconstruction of Nahr El Bared refugee camp is the main preoccupation for UNRWA. We have received some $ 75 million of the $ 277 million dollars needed for the project, enough to begin breaking ground, anticipated in the coming days. Other concerns include the poor socio-economic and infrastructure conditions in the other camps in Lebanon and the task of securing for refugees access to economic opportunities.

In Jordan and Syria, the onus is on UNRWA and its partners to help refugees make the most of the openings offered by the stable political environment. In spite of the substantive potential for human development activities, too many refugees are disadvantaged by poverty and social marginalization, and UNRWA’s budgetary constraints mean that some services, facilities and the infrastructure in refugee camps fall short of the standards we wish to maintain.

I often have cause to remind our interlocutors about the regional and global picture of Palestine refugees and their needs. Yet there can be no question that the occupied Palestinian territory is where UNRWA and Palestine refugees face the sternest tests. In the West Bank, the permit and closure regime adversely affects the majority of Palestinians, causing suffering for many. And in Gaza, the lives of a million and a half residents, 70 percent of them refugees, are held to ransom by a blockade and by years of armed conflict.

In Gaza today, the cycles of crises and violence of the last few years have engendered a sense of weary resignation tinged with much anxiety about what the future might hold. The effects of the most recent conflict are compounded because there has been little, or almost no, relaxation in Israeli restrictions on the passage of people and goods through Gaza’s borders. On the contrary, Israel has moved unilaterally to close the Karni and Sofa crossings, which were vital to the inflow of construction materials.

Some exceptions have been made for humanitarian supplies for UNRWA and other aid agencies. For example, materials for UNRWA’s "Summer Games" programme of recreational and learning activities have come in this year largely unhindered. However, construction materials, which are essential for the recovery and reconstruction of Gaza after the recent conflict, as well as other items such as currency, which are essential for a normally functioning economy, are not allowed in. UNRWA has not been able to commence implementation of its 346 million Quick Recovery Plan for the nine months to September this year. As exports are banned, agricultural products which were previously welcomed in European and Mediterranean markets are now confined to local consumption inside Gaza – for those who can afford them. As a result of this persistent blockade, the underground tunnels linking Gaza and Egypt have become the mainstay of Gaza’s economy and of people’s everyday lives.

I have lived and worked in Gaza since August of 2000 and have been a close observer of the trials and upheavals Palestinians have endured throughout this period. Many of my Palestinian colleagues and friends tell me that the possibilities for a negotiated solution and the tortured efforts to reconcile the rift between Hamas and Fatah, are as bleak as they have ever been. In spite of these ominous prospects, hope is the one item that is not in short supply in Gaza. It is true that the intensity of the recent conflict took a heavy toll, and that the belief in a better future is, perhaps, not as robust and widespread as it has been in the past. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that the fortitude of the Palestinian spirit remains strong.

UNRWA sees this resilience as a resource. We ask our partners to join us in sustaining it and responding to it by seeking innovative ways to address the many concrete needs of Palestinians and Palestine refugees throughout the Middle East. The odds, daunting as they may appear, must not cloud our view or limit our vision of the range of human development activities that are possible in Gaza and throughout the region. UNRWA, with its partners, notably the refugees, will continue to explore these possibilities until such time that a just and lasting resolution is found to their plight.

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