Interview with Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner-General of UN Relief & Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East
30 December 2008 – Karen AbuZayd was appointed in 2005 as Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which serves as the main provider of basic services – education, health, relief and social services – to millions of registered Palestine refugees in the Middle East. Prior to that, she served as UNRWA’s Deputy Commissioner-General, a post she held from 2000.
Air strikes, which Israel says it has launched in response to Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza, entered their fourth day today, with over 300 Gazans killed and many hundreds more wounded. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has demanded that Israel and Hamas halt their acts of violence and take all necessary measures to avoid civilian casualties. He has also called on Israel to keep open all border crossings necessary for the continued provision of humanitarian supplies to Gaza.
UN News Centre: How does this current situation compare to past eruptions of violence in Gaza?
Karen AbuZayd: Well, it’s much, much worse. I’ve been here throughout the Intifada [Palestinian uprising] for the last eight-and-a-half years and although we’ve had some very bad times when there was heavy bombing, never [were there] so many people killed in one day and during the last four days that we have just seen.
Of course civilians have been continually deprived of goods over the last eight years, and things have been even worse in the last three years and even worse in the last few months. We have not distributed food for the last two weeks because we didn’t have any supplies of flour. So although we’re now getting in some goods, we still haven’t gotten in flour so people are going hungry. I think that lots of pressure needs to be put on both parties to stop the violence, to agree to have some sort of truce or lull.
UN News Centre: The crossings into Gaza have been closed for a while, but how have these latest air strikes affected UNRWA’s ability to respond to the humanitarian situation?
Karen AbuZayd: Well, our basic services are primary education and health care. We’re not offering the education because children and teachers can’t get to school. It’s too dangerous to be out. But in terms of delivering things, the Israelis have opened up at least one crossing for us to use so we’ve been able to bring in some food and medicines and other things that people need in their homes.
UN News Centre: Earlier this month, your Deputy Commissioner-General was here in New York for a pledging conference and he said that UNRWA’s “running on empty” because of the cash shortfall, but how do you plan to continue your activities in the face of such a cash shortage?
Karen AbuZayd: Our activities are going to suffer, especially our developmental activities, our infrastructure building, and so on. And of course when we have a problem with our budget, especially as big as the one is now, we have problems paying our staff because 80 per cent of our budget is for salaries. We have 28,000 staff in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, West Bank and Gaza who are teachers and social workers and sanitation workers and so on. So that means we just keep stretching things and running double shifts at schools and things like that.
We had a donor’s conference this morning and presented our needs to the donors to cover this situation in Gaza. Usually the donors come forward and we’ve certainly had lots of approaches and offers, particularly from governments in the region wanting to help and offering food and money.
UN News Centre: Regarding your staff, what measures are being taken to ensure the safety of UNRWA personnel?
Karen AbuZayd: Well, for those of us here in Gaza now, some of us are in the basement of our building, our headquarters, trying to stay away from windows and that sort of thing. Our installations are fairly well-documented in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) records so that they will avoid hitting them directly.
We’ve had some collateral damage. You may have heard we had eight students killed as they were boarding buses from our vocational training centre which is part of our compound here. UNRWA staff, for example sanitation and health workers who are going out these days and people who are doing the food distribution, all of our people in the warehouses, they’re just very brave people and they’re trying to do their best for their fellow refugees and just carry on with their work. We’re unloading trucks and had to interrupt it because the bombings started right near here and the collateral damage is bad. A lot of our windows were shattered in the field office compound because it’s right across from the Islamic University.
UN News Centre: What steps do you think need to be taken to create a lull in the violence to allow for services to resume?
Karen AbuZayd: I think that lots of pressure needs to be put on both parties to stop the violence, to agree to have some sort of truce or lull, for a ceasefire that will last so people aren’t afraid of what might happen next or when it’s going to all start again.
UN News Centre: Speaking about a possible ground invasion, there has been talk about the psychological effects of this. Can you share your thoughts on that?
Karen AbuZayd: This has been going on since the beginning of the Intifada, and it was in the year 2000. For the children and even many adults, the constant conflict and the constant violence and the threat of your home being demolished as happened during the Intifada, or the constant bombing and noise and keeping up all night, these are things that bothered the whole population. Men are particularly affected: 120,000 of them used to work in Israel and since the beginning of that Intifada, they have been unemployed for the most part – and this is very hard for people not to be able to take care of their families. We found that our psycho-social programmes had to treat or take account of the needs of men as well as the children that we first started the programme for. Now what’s happening is it’s just, of course, gotten worse and worse.
UN News Centre: You were appointed Commissioner-General in 2005 and you said you’ve been with the agency for eight-and-a-half years. What in your experience have been the high points and the low points in the years that you’ve been with UNRWA?
Karen AbuZayd: There have been a lot of low points because there have been so many crises since I started, but at the same time there are quite a lot of high points when you’re working with Palestine refugees because they’re, as we say, perhaps too resilient a people who keep coming back and demonstrate the quality of steadfastness.
We’ve had some real successes in some of the things we’ve been able to do in those areas that are conflict-free. You probably don’t hear much about refugees in Jordan and Syria because these are places where the refugees are well-hosted and we’re able to do things that focus on development, which is what we’re supposed to do. We’re a human development agency and we are happy when we can resettle, or settle, refugees temporarily, improve their living conditions, which is what we’ve been able to do in Syria and Lebanon, for example.
[With the Universal Declaration for Human Rights marking its 60th anniversary] our message for this year was to ask people to take a look at that Declaration and see where the Palestinians fit into that, because if you look at the 28 articles, not one of them really applies to Palestinians. And I think it’s kind of a wake-up call for what’s been happening to these people for 60 years.
As UNRWA, we are beginning a commemoration of our 60 years of existence, which is much too long for a refugee organization that’s taking care of one group of refugees, and we’re going to commemorate it with a number of events. It’s not a great time to talk about what’s happening in Gaza, but we would like to show the resilience of the Palestinians and the things they’ve been able to achieve despite being refugees and in exile, and without any human rights really for 60 years. It’s been quite an achievement when you see how they’ve gotten their education, how popular they are around the world because they are so talented and so hardworking and so well educated.