Palestine refugees in ongoing crises: An UNRWA perspective
Victoria University; 8 October, 2007
Thank you for that warm introduction. My sincere thanks also go to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and the United Nations Association of New Zealand for organizing this event.
An invitation to speak to a gathering such as this is a chance to introduce my agency, UNRWA, and to share with you the challenges we face. Most importantly, it is an opportunity for facts about Palestine refugees to be heard. I refer to the 4.4 million Palestine refugees UNRWA serves in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory.
I will begin this evening with a brief outline of the services and roles that UNRWA performs. I will touch on some constraints we face as an Agency, and offer a perspective on the circumstances facing Palestine refugees in our areas of operation. I will devote some time to the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory as that is where refugees – and Palestinians in general – contend with the sternest challenges. I will conclude with some brief reflections on how the role of the international community might become more relevant.
UNRWA was established by the General Assembly in 1949 and began operations in May the following year. The rather staid moniker handed us by the General Assembly - "Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East" signaled the international community’s readiness to assume responsibility for an important aspect of fallout from the 1948 conflict. Over 7-800,000 people fled their homes and were in urgent need of emergency assistance. There were a number of undercurrents to the establishment of UNRWA and the mandate fashioned for it. I will mention three of these as they will arise at a later stage of our discussion.
First, there was recognition of the unique character of the Palestine refugee issue in the Middle East, and its inextricable connection to the geo-politics of the region. There was also an intention to match the uniqueness of Palestine refugees with an Agency exclusively dedicated to them. You will know that a separate agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was created later to cater for the needs of refugees globally – with the express exception of Palestine refugees. A second theme underlying UNRWA’s establishment was the bifurcation of political and humanitarian roles. Even though the political dimension is of significance to the refugee issue, UNRWA’s mandate is entirely non-political in character and confined to humanitarian and human development activities. A third theme was that the Agency’s role was foreseen as finite and at the same time dynamic. UNRWA is expected to prepare for a time when its services are no longer required. To underscore this, my Agency is financed solely by voluntary contributions and its mandate is renewed by the General Assembly every three years.
In the fifty-seven years since UNRWA came into being, these themes – the unique character of Palestine refugees; the interplay between the political and the humanitarian; and the drive to help prepare refugees for a better tomorrow – have played their part in shaping the course of the Agency’s evolution. We have moved on from the early years when our principal preoccupation was providing relief and emergency assistance. Our vision is now centered on responding to the humanitarian and human development needs of Palestine refugees. A constant feature of our work is to enhance the well-being and skills of refugees and to build their capacity to become self-reliant. We look beyond today, keeping in view the prospect of a just solution, enabling Palestine refugees to contribute their knowledge and skills to a viable Palestinian State.
Each year, UNRWA’s schools seek to enhance the learning potential of 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 passing on 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.
We construct and repair homes and provide sewerage, and environmental health services to structures in the 58 refugee camps (where only one-third of the refugees live) in our areas of operation. Our microfinance programme 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.
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 28,000 staff, most of them 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.
UNRWA’s years of consistent and committed service have earned it the trust and confidence of refugees and those who have a genuine interest in the welfare of Palestinians. The Agency and its work have come to symbolize the view that the international community cares about humanitarian needs and wants these to be addressed in spite of the challenging political and security environment. Our humanitarian presence mitigates the refugee community’s sense of isolation and thus serves as a stabilizing influence in the midst of tensions and conflict.
Our special relationship with refugees rests on several elements. It derives from our extensive field presence and our sharing living space with the communities we serve for many decades. The relationship is reinforced by the large number of refugees who are employed at all levels in the Agency and by a conviction held by many refugees that they can rely on the Agency to stand by them at all times, particularly in adverse circumstances. For example, over the last eighteen months the Agency has maintained its presence and continued to deliver services in spite of a de facto sanctions regime imposed on the occupied Palestinian territory by the international community. Our staff have shown extraordinary courage and commitment throughout the years and continue to do so in spite of the risks. Throughout the first half of this year, UNRWA staff remained on the ground during the fiercest internal armed conflict Gaza had ever seen. We were also present during the heaviest bombardment in the Lebanon conflict last summer and were on hand to help displaced refugees from Nahr El Bared this summer.
Still, we are aware that the best way to retain the confidence of refugees – and also of our donors - is by continuing to deliver services of high quality and by keeping our operations cost- efficient and effective. With this in mind, in 2006 we launched a three-year, 30 million dollar programme of comprehensive management reform. Our organizational development or "OD" process, as we call it, is designed to transform our Agency by making it more agile and more strategic, and better able to sustain its services at a high standard. Thus far, some 14.3 million dollars have been pledged to support the reform process. We appreciate these contributions as signs of the confidence our donors have in the Agency’s ability to modernize. Yet much more is needed in terms of financial and institutional support if UNRWA is not only to reform, but also to raise the quality of its operations and programmes.
So far, we have taken a brief look at UNRWA’s work, the challenge of reform and our financial constraints. I will now turn to the situation that Palestine refugees face in Lebanon and in the occupied Palestinian territory. These are the locations where refugee lives and livelihoods are under the greatest stress and have been over the past several years.
In Lebanon, the armed conflict in Nahr el-Bared was the latest in a series of national upheavals, displacing 31,000 refugees. Not for the first time, they lost their homes and livelihoods and were compelled to rely for shelter on the hospitality of other refugees, themselves already in poor conditions. In concert with the Lebanese government, we have launched an emergency appeal to assist the refugees on the road to rebuilding their lives. That road will be a long one. We are under no illusions that the extensive damage to the Nahr El Bared camp means that the reconstruction effort and the return of displaced refugees will take some time. The events in Nahr el Bared illustrated that there have been no opportunities for durable solutions to their plight. They retain their status as a distinct, identifiable people in exile, a status that tends to be accentuated in times of national tension and crisis, and is often a source of additional vulnerability.
In Gaza and the West Bank, where Palestine refugees constitute 45.3 % of the population, refugees and non-refugees alike are contending with conditions bordering on disaster. Since the second intifada began in the year 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 continue to experience ruthless military incursions in which civilian lives, livelihoods and property have been destroyed, and responded with the continuous firing of Qassam rockets. They had a taste of euphoria with the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from within and around Gaza and reveled in 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 the scourge of a major incursion in the summer of 2006 and the worst ever internal conflict in June of this year.
In sharp contrast to the deadly fratricide of the first six months of this year, 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?
The socio-economic situation is so grave that the question might well be: how much longer can Palestinian fortitude withstand the effects of deep poverty and widespread unemployment? Public sector salaries are now being paid and yet the effects of denying full salaries to 160,000 civil servants for 15 months are still being felt. 30% of Palestinians and 80% of Gazans live in poverty. Unemployment is at 44% this year, and prices of essential food and household commodities are rising fast. In the period between January and September 2007, the price of wheat flour in Gaza rose by 21.6 %, poultry by 27 %, and animal feed by some 40%. Not surprisingly, food insecurity is as high as 77% in northern Gaza, where the destruction of crops and arable land during Israeli incursions has 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 if the current crisis persists. There is dual irony in the fact that the fruit 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 remain out of reach for Gaza’s teeming poor.
We must keep in mind that Palestine is an occupied territory. The land borders, airspace and territorial sea have long been and continue to be under the 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 and Rafah crossings - respectively Gaza’s main access and exit point for commercial goods and movement of people – have both been completely closed since June this year. Prior to June, they were open only intermittently and unpredictably. The impact of these closures is easy to imagine. The flow of commerce is being stifled. Export earnings are drying up, depriving farmers and other producers of 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 operations. Some 213 million dollars worth of infrastructure and employment projects have been disrupted, of which 93 million dollars are UNRWA’s alone. These would have built schools and other essential infrastructure, provided employment and helped raise living standards.
In the West Bank, Palestinians are subject to a 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, with the barrier still uncompleted, more than 60,000 people living in the area between the barrier and the Green Line – as well as half a million Palestinians living inside the West Bank but within a kilometre of the barrier – 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 and its construction are also causing displacement as families and communities under pressure of the closure regime abandon their homes to seek a less repressed environment.
The closure regime is progressively 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 urban 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 an up to 50% decrease in the number of patients visiting the six specialist hospitals in East Jerusalem. UNRWA staff are affected along with other Palestinians. The closure regime means that our staff (350 who live in West Bank and work in Jerusalem) take longer to commute to and from work, and in some cases are denied access to places where they are needed to deliver essential services to Palestine refugees.
And there is more. The tightening in the closure regime is accompanied by the relentless growth of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and the fragmentation of the West Bank. A useful source of information on this subject 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. The UN projects that the settler population may reach half a million by the end of this year. 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 earlier collates various primary sources to show that settlements, outposts, military bases, restricted military areas, settler roads together take up some 38% of West Bank. These are locations from which Palestinians are barred or to which they have only restricted access. 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 its prospects for functioning as a viable political and economic unit are placed in jeopardy.
The situation I am describing is one in which violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms are pervasive; where poverty and material deprivation are threatening to take permanent hold; where the effects of a occupation, including armed conflict, are frequently visited upon civilians; and where the absence of a credible peace is denying ordinary Palestinians the option to hope for positive change.
To us, the community of States and international actors who claim allegiance to international law, the United Nations Charter and its matrix of human rights treaties, the dire condition of Palestine conveys many messages.
One clear message is that the humanitarian efforts of UNRWA and its partners can go only so far. The substantial flows of assistance that have poured into Gaza and the West Bank have helped - in many cases significantly - to alleviate some of the hardships that Palestinians endure on a daily basis. In truth, however, the benefits have been principally to stave off disaster. Humanitarian aid has not been converted into sustainable change in living conditions for the simple reason that no attention is being given to the economic and political fundamentals.
This speaks to the distinction I referred to earlier between humanitarian and political roles. Although these roles are assigned to different entities, they are mutually reinforcing components of what should be cohesive international action. In the Palestinian case, there is a severe disjunction in pace and effectiveness of political and humanitarian roles. While the humanitarian sphere teems with energy and drive, there has been a paucity of concrete results in the political arena. And yet neither can achieve much without the other. Both humanitarian and political interventions should be pursued concurrently if real benefits are to accrue to Palestinians in whose name the interventions are made.
Quite apart from the need to complement humanitarian action, there is an independent imperative to show progress on the political front. One of the most alarming but least acknowledged aspects of the present situation is the loss of Palestinian faith in the international community’s ability to act in their best interests. Palestinians have long appreciated the role of the donor community not merely as a source of benevolence and financial support, but also as a sponsor of their quest for self-government and a mediator in their search for peace. There were many positive dimensions of this mutual confidence, not the least of which was the strengthening of those segments of Palestinian society that were progressive, democratic and outward-looking in orientation. The greater the credibility of the donor community on the streets of Gaza, the more constrained were the forces of conservatism.
It is unfortunate to see how steeply the credibility of international community has waned in the occupied Palestinian territory, particularly over the past two years. Palestinians are bewildered by what they see as willful inaction, disinterest and mixed messages from the once-trusted international community. Over the past several years, Palestinian civilians have borne the brunt of the armed conflict with Israel. They cannot understand why the stipulations of international law, including human rights law and international humanitarian law, appear to be ignored in the occupied Palestinian territory. They fail to see how their freedom of movement and other freedoms can be trampled upon with such impunity, or why fundamental legal injunctions pertaining to proportionality and restraint in the use of force can be so blatantly ignored. They also marvel that alongside preparations for a peace conference and an emerging momentum for peace, the occupying power regularly caries out ruthless military operations, complete with house demolitions, arbitrary arrests and population displacement.
Palestinians are puzzled by the adversarial policies that the international community has initiated, supported or acquiesced in, fully aware of their severe implications for the ordinary people of Gaza and the West Bank. They did not expect that their participation in democratic elections in 2006, acclaimed as free and fair, would provoke fifteen months of harsh sanctions that included the prohibition of remittances from abroad and the non payment of salaries of civil servants. And Palestinians did not imagine that the declaration of Gaza as "hostile territory" – opening the way for the suspension of fuel, electricity, water and banking services, would be welcomed in some quarters and greeted with a deafening silence in others.
It is difficult to calculate the cumulative impact of years of disappointment and frustrated expectations. From our vantage point on the ground, we do know that the implications are far-reaching. We sense the impact in loss of hope, in anger and frustration. We see it also in worrying signs that reactionary elements are on the ascendant, emboldened by what they interpret as clear evidence that the international community has turned its back on Palestinians.
It is hard to identify a period in recent history when the integrity of the Palestinian body politic has been at greater risk than it is now. I have lived and worked in Gaza for more than seven years, and I cannot recall a moment when the condition of Palestine refugees was more desperate or the Palestinians more pessimistic about their future.
Yet I believe that there is still time for us to revive the international community’s role. It is still possible to reverse the grave decline in the situation of Palestinians and to restore the prospects for a secure and economically sound future for Palestinians, Israelis and the Middle-East as a whole. Allow me to suggest a few considerations for the way forward.
A vital step in the right direction would be to bring an inclusive orientation to peace-making. Access to the negotiating table could be based on objective criteria: a party’s ability to represent the interests of all Palestinian as distinct from factional political interests; its readiness, on past evidence, to contemplate compromise and to engage in negotiations in good faith; and the party’s capacity, again based on past evidence, to fulfill its undertakings. There is abundant international evidence pointing to the fact that the process of making peace can be advanced only by embracing interlocutors across the political spectrum.
Inclusiveness is particularly critical as a stratagem to ensure that the unity of the occupied Palestinian territory is restored. Without this unity, any future agreement will be built on a fractured foundation. It is incumbent on the international community to use its influence to serve the goal of Palestinian reconciliation, and to encourage the placing of the interests of ordinary Palestinians over and above factional interests. On their part, Palestinian leaders must demonstrate the maturity and political courage that is needed for principled compromises. Their focus must remain on tackling isolation, poverty, and economic collapse, and on the only victory that really matters, namely, the end of occupation and the establishment of a viable Palestinian State.
A balanced and even-handed orientation is also required; one that treats all sides equally and maintains a focus on the ultimate goal of achieving a just and lasting settlement. A consistently unbiased posture is the essence of the international mediator’s role. It is also the basis for the credibility of the negotiation process. Furthermore, a balanced approach translates into leverage in the negotiation process. The more impartial and credible a negotiator is perceived to be, the greater the influence that can be brought to bear on both sides.
The conflict in the occupied Palestinian territory is an aberration in a world in which there is universal agreement on promoting human rights, justice and economic opportunity for all. Palestinians have been in travail for far too long. Their preoccupations are ours too because the safety and security of our world will remain compromised as long as human suffering continues on the scale it has attained in Gaza and the West Bank. Our responsibility to protect and care for Palestine refugees and the people of Palestine is not a vicarious one. It is a direct responsibility; one that we neglect at our peril.