13 September 2011
Ma‘an News Agency
As the debate intensifies over the bid for recognition at the UN of a Palestinian state, questions are being raised about UNRWA, the UN agency mandated to bring education, health, relief and social services to as many as five million refugees pending a resolution of their plight. What will the future hold for refugees following the statehood discussions? And what about the continuation of services provided to refugees? For answers, Ma’an turned to the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Filippo Grandi.
Ma’an: How does the Palestinian bid for recognition and full UN membership affect UNRWA and the plight of the refugees registered with your Agency?
Grandi: The aspiration for Palestinian statehood, an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a just and durable solution to the plight of Palestine refugees are distinct objectives, albeit closely related. A bid for statehood does not in and of itself address the plight of the refugees. We have long advocated that refugees’ legitimate rights and aspirations should be addressed and accommodated in the context of discussions between political actors, including the parties – discussions that must be based on international law and UN resolutions, and reflect the informed views and choices of the refugees. There is no doubt in my mind that there can be no just and durable peace in the Middle East unless some five million refugees are brought out of their 63-year state of dispossession and exile. Here we come to a broad range of rights, which we continue to say must be addressed by the parties and in discussion with the refugees. UNRWA does not make specific recommendations about how these rights are to be achieved, but we do say that those rights must be realised. This is in complete conformity with international law and refugee practice. So, as the statehood debate intensifies, I would encourage all concerned to bear Palestine refugees in mind and to remember that the refugees will play a key role in a political order based on two States living side by side in peace and dignity, and in a comprehensive and just solution to the conflict negotiated by the parties.
Ma’an: There has been much debate about UNRWA’s work, the possibility the Agency is reducing services, particularly its emergency programmes. Do you accept that the statehood debate has increased the fears and concerns of the refugees?
Grandi: You are right. I am acutely aware that the statehood debate has generated fresh anxiety among refugees regarding the future. Allow me to go some way to allaying those fears. By the same token that the statehood debate does not in and of itself deal with the question of the refugees, the need for UNRWA’s work also remains paramount and so does the imperative to ensure that our programmes are fully funded, whatever the outcome of the coming months. UNRWA will continue with its mandated services and programmes until such time that there is a just and durable solution for the refugees. Our core services in education, health, relief and social services will continue in earnest and I remain a positive and passionate advocate for this. Everyone including the donors is aware of this. On our emergency programmes, the need for which continues as the humanitarian needs of refugees persist, we are stepping up our fundraising efforts. I am renewing an appeal this week for substantial funds. As of today, we are asking our donors for US$ 36 million for our emergency work in Gaza. Of that US$ 36 million – US$ 11 million is for creating temporary employment, US$ 16 million for food assistance, US$ 6 million is for school feeding and US$ 3 million will be spent on community mental health. We have already approached some major donors with this new appeal and I will do everything in my power to make sure that these programmes are funded. I am aware that our emergency work in Gaza is facing a critical situation and all of our donors and other stakeholders are aware that this situation is unsustainable and needs to be dealt with immediately and as an urgent priority.
Ma’an: If the statehood bid fails, are you concerned that there will be an increase in violence, that the facts on the ground will change and that Palestinians will lose faith in the peace process and return to other means to achieve their goals?
Grandi: I have to say that the threat of Palestinians and Israelis being killed and injured in more violence has to be worrying to someone like me who is committed to humanitarian principles, the upholding of international law and the ideals of non-violent change. Whatever the outcome of the statehood bid, I would like to extend heartfelt appeals at three levels.
First, I appeal to all parties and concerned actors to exercise the utmost restraint in their reactions and to refrain from threats and acts of violence of any kind, bearing in mind that the Palestinian people – refugees and non-refugees alike – have had enough of armed conflict, political confrontations, human rights violations and suffering.
Second, all concerned must recognise that the statehood bid and its outcomes must not distract from addressing the pressing issues of rights, freedoms and liberties that remain outstanding, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territory. The occupation itself must be addressed, and with it settler violence, settlement expansion, demolitions and displacements in the West Bank, and the Gaza blockade, which the International Committee of the Red Cross has described as a clear violation of international humanitarian law. For many years, UNRWA’s advocacy against these violations has been consistent and determined and we will not flag in our efforts in this regard.
Third, the parties and the international community must renew with greater urgency the search for a negotiated solution to the conflict, one which comprehensively addresses all outstanding issues, including the refugee issue, in a manner consistent with UN resolutions and international law. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as complex and intractable as any the world has known. Yet solutions would be possible if political actors were to engage the issues and fulfill their obligations in principled, courageous and compassionate ways. The outcomes from the statehood bid will leave intact the obligations of the parties and the responsibility of the international community to continue pressing for a fair and just solution to the conflict. I believe that the legendary fortitude of the Palestinian people and their refusal to be daunted by overwhelming odds will carry them through the coming months and enable them to derive positive outcomes regardless. Rest assured that UNRWA, on its part, will remain steadfast in its commitment to serve the humanitarian and human development needs of Palestine refugees until a just and lasting solution is found to their plight.