Gaza-Palestine: Out of the Margins
1 October 2010
Keynote address by Filippo Grandi, UNRWA Commissioner-General
I thank you, Mr President for your warm remarks. I also thank Birzeit University, the Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies and Professor Heacock for inviting UNRWA to give the keynote address at this important international conference. The focus is very timely, as we are perhaps at a crucial moment when new political horizons may well be shaped.
Birzeit University’s reputation for academic excellence is well known and well-deserved. As the first institution of higher learning in the occupied Palestinian territory, it continues to make truly outstanding contributions in socially and politically relevant teaching and research. Birzeit serves as a reminder of the heights Palestinians can achieve if given the opportunity, the freedom to create and the liberty to act. Its perseverance and commitment to excellence are also a reminder of the human desire for normality and progress against all odds – one of the key themes of the thoughts I would like to share with you this morning.
Opportunity, freedom to create, and the liberty to act – these are the diametrical opposites of the conditions of enforced deprivation that flow from the occupation of Palestinian land. The occupation is now entering its forty-third year. It blends with the other injustices of exile since 1948 and the effects of decades-long armed conflict to give Palestinians and Palestine refugees their unwanted place in the modern history of human suffering.
Within this context, Gaza has its own distinctive character, one that is forged from so many years in the eye of the conflict. At the same time, Gaza has come to embody the suffering and the yet unfulfilled aspirations of the Palestinian people. And as crisis after crisis have broken around Gaza, its image as a forlorn and dangerous place has been reinforced to a point where, consciously or not, many embrace the self-fulfilling rhetoric that seeks to justify its exclusion as a place beyond salvation. As the title of our conference puts it, for much of the world, Gaza and its people are very much “in the margins”.
The current situation fits the mould. The recent easing of restrictions on the importation of consumer goods is a welcome development and has brought some benefit to the people of Gaza, even if the boost to the formal economy is limited to a few sectors and falls far short of the free flow of goods and people envisaged in the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access. Most Palestinians, however, still face harsh conditions of isolation. Few, if any, can avoid the effects of paralyzed public services, a collapsed formal economy, and the physical and psychological threats from the conflict. It is self-evident that further, bolder measures are needed to open Gaza to the world and in particular to the West Bank, with which it is intended, along with East Jerusalem, to form a Palestinian state, while reviving its economy and placing its people on the road to recovery.
The closure of Gaza’s borders has been the direct cause of debilitating, widespread poverty. Over sixty percent of Gazans live below the poverty line, some forty percent are unemployed, and eighty percent rely on food handouts. And yet we know that the statistics do not tell the whole story of a people whose dreams and hopes seem to have been deferred to a later time.
We at UNRWA see the effects of Gaza’s ordeal up close. Just last month we measured an abject poverty rate of more than 30% among pupils in UNRWA schools. Outrageous as it may seem, it is a fact that these children come to their classrooms hungry, relying on our school feeding to provide the energy they need to learn and grow.
So, yes, Gaza is still suffering. But Gaza is complicated in every dimension in a region rich in complexities. The question we must ask ourselves – given that it will be arduous, indeed, to address Gaza’s problems – is whether we can afford to leave Gaza in the margins where it presently lies, preferring to direct our attention and resources to other, less thorny or intractable issues? Can we afford to look the other way while this large Mediterranean community and its 1.5 million people remain locked out of the mainstream of normal interaction with the world? To put it starkly, will we declare it a lost cause?
As representative of the UN organization which for 61 years has carried out the world’s commitment to stand by millions of Palestine refugees I say, “Certainly not!” to each of these questions and firmly believe that this is the right response not only for UNRWA but also for the international community, in particular at this crucial moment when political developments may affect, hopefully for the better, the reality in the occupied Palestinian territory, including Gaza, for refugees and other Palestinians. I am sure I am joined in this belief by all who share the aspirations of peace and human dignity for everybody. I say this from the standpoint and perspective of Palestine refugees, and of UNRWA – a specific point of view, but one that fits well with the thrust of this conference and has value for contributing insights into the situation in Gaza, given that around 70% of Gaza’s population are refugees from Mandate Palestine. I also believe that UNRWA’s views and experience can provide useful food for thought to your deliberations, not least because our focus on human development and our delivery of services directly to refugees provide us with a uniquely close view that is informed by a relationship of trust and confidence with the refugee population.
Through decades of extensive interaction with refugees on the ground, we have drawn on a resource which we recognize as the very foundation of our human development work. I refer here to the strength of the Palestinian spirit - that human element which emboldens people to aspire and achieve, regardless of their circumstances and against odds that are seemingly overwhelming. Seen in a different way, it is perhaps because of the overwhelming difficulties facing Gaza that its people have developed a positive energy, which manifests itself in so many constructive ways. I say this not as mere praise: there is a social dynamism that is special in Gaza. UNRWA – and I - have encountered it, and its potential, time and time again – working with refugees who with the minimum of support are able to build their own reserves to create better lives for themselves and their families; or inspired by the thirst for learning, and maturity of character, that we see in the children in our primary schools; or awed by the entrepreneurial abilities displayed by our microfinance clients. Such qualities, I say with pride, are also demonstrated on a daily basis by the UNRWA staff working tirelessly to improve their community. In these and in many other ways, we have learned that the human factor remains the driving force of development work. In short, it is the resilient people of Gaza that make this development possible; against all odds.
If the dynamism of Gaza drives its human development, that same dynamism must continue to benefit from the contributions of relief and development organizations. It is important and positive that the reconstruction of Gaza is clearly a priority of Palestinian state building. However, until the compounded effects of conflict, closures and internal political divisions are eliminated, and until a Palestinian state is fully established and normal development mechanisms restored, international support will remain a critical requirement in responding to the enormity of the challenges of Gaza.
A defining theme of UNRWA’s operational identity is the Agency’s focus on creating opportunities for refugees and strengthening their ability to seize them. It may be useful, in opening this conference, to share a few lessons in this respect. We take the view that at the heart of our mandate is the imperative of investing in refugees as people – investing in ways that enable them to develop their potential in spite of the constraints imposed by exile and conflict. This approach is at the core of what “human development” means for UNRWA. It was evident at the outset of the Agency’s operations and is exemplified particularly by the massive investment in refugee children through primary education, our largest programme and one that symbolizes what UNRWA represents - and continues to represent - for generations of Palestinians. Our education programme aims to recognize the potential of individual refugees and nurture them in directions consistent with United Nations values: tolerance for diversity and opposing views; peaceful resolution of disputes; respect for the human rights and dignity for all without any distinction; and respect for the rule of law.
I believe that in the situation of Gaza – desperate and protracted as it may be, and even more so because of that – important lessons can be learned from an orientation that puts individuals at the centre of interventions and focuses on lending them what assistance we can as they strive to improve their lives, their communities; and, through them, the region. This is very similar to the paradigm of human security; a concept influencing the foreign policy of many States and which is relevant to the Middle East. This concept holds that ensuring the basic needs of individuals and helping them grow and realize their potential can both improve people’s lives and ultimately reduce conflict. Education belongs of course to the realm of development. Our experience in Gaza – but also in the West Bank, Lebanon and elsewhere – has taught us that fulfilling the right to a good quality education is also, and fundamentally, a strategic interest of the international community.
Taken together with our focus on refugees as individuals, the themes of quality services and creation of opportunities constitute the leitmotiv of an agency which, though fully cognizant of the odds stacked against refugees in Gaza and elsewhere, understands from experience that a measure of human development is nevertheless attainable, and remains firm in the pursuit of that goal.
UNRWA’s work in Gaza offers many compelling instances of how the themes of quality services and opportunities for refugees reinforce each other and are demonstrated in practice. The Schools of Excellence programme is a prime example. It was borne from a recognition that years of underfunding coupled with the effects of the occupation and the impact of border closures, were threatening the very foundations of learning for the over 200,000 refugee children in UNRWA schools in Gaza. The threat was dramatically reflected in shocking failure rates revealed through independent testing in the 2006-2007 school year.
I have seen these educational initiatives played out in classrooms throughout Gaza. They are a revelation, and as proof of their human value and of their dedicated teachers, we are seeing student test scores begin to rebound. Take into account that these children are doing homework by candlelight because of daily electricity cuts, or live in homes where armed conflict and poverty and despair have fuelled domestic violence and trauma. Many adults are overcome by the same hardships that Gaza’s children are struggling bravely to confront. It is imperative that we continue to support them.
There are other key examples of the innovation and construction of real opportunities for refugees in Gaza. UNRWA’s “Equality in Action” programme is designed to improve the capacity of women to exercise freedom of choice, to take advantage of opportunities for personal professional development and ultimately to address gender discrimination and inequality at all levels of social and economic life. We are supporting women’s access to the labour market, including through leveraging the services offered by the agency’s microfinance services. We raise awareness of domestic violence, offering advice and counselling to promote women’s capacity to cope with the phenomenon. We provide women with spaces for social interaction and recreation and foster, through support for a radio station for women, their right to freedom of opinion and self expression.
And another example is our Summer Games activity, drawing, in 2010, almost 250,000 of Gaza’s conflict-scarred children to much needed recreational activities. Sports, arts and crafts, and student theatre thrive in these Games. They reveal that children in Gaza (contrary to perceptions of many on the outside) are just like children in New York, Beijing, or Cairo.
These are just a few instances of how the refugees we serve are able to look beyond the harshness of the immediate circumstances in Gaza and to focus, against all odds, on promoting independent livelihood opportunities for refugees, maximizing their learning and self-improvement, and working to expand the life choices of individuals in the face of severe conditions.
Due to military occupation, outbreaks of violence and over a decade of closed borders, Gazans continue to endure significant impediments to a normal life. Among the most visible of these is the slow pace of rehabilitation and reconstruction – far too slow to address with the urgency that it deserves the damage and destruction caused during the most recent war in Gaza and years of conflict and closures. The United Nations, including UNRWA, have in place extensive plans for the reconstruction of Gaza. These plans have been paralyzed for years by the prohibition on importation of construction materials. This has had multiple negative consequences. Let me just mention here, by way of example, one impact that it has had on education: we have permission to build only a handful of the 100 new schools needed for refugees in Gaza; this year we had to turn away almost 40,000 refugee children for lack of space, and the problem will be compounded by the average annual increase of 8,000 students among the refugee population. We are forced to “double shift” almost all of our Gaza schools, administering one school in the morning and a second in the afternoon. We shall now have to start triple shifting, or create even more schools out of shipping containers.
It bears repeating here that the recent easing of the blockade is welcome. The situation, however, continues to be extremely difficult, as most materials needed for reconstruction remain subject to cumbersome import procedures and crossing points with facilities that are not yet adequate for large flows of goods. With the support of the international community and of the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations continue to negotiate approval of reconstruction projects with the Israeli authorities. Although several approvals have now been granted, and the logistical capacity is being upgraded, overall needs are far from being met, in particular for reconstruction and the private sector. While recognising Israel’s legitimate security concerns, we will continue to urge the Israeli authorities to expand the range and quantity of goods for import to Gaza, while also insisting that the blockade not just be eased, but be brought to an end. However, as we do so, we should not forget that at the root of the problem are complex and unresolved political issues. Even the best logistical solution will not solve the political problems before us.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This leads me to my concluding points. The international community bears responsibilities for refugees, whom, as persons without the protection of a state - require the protection of international law and legal norms. It is this aspect of refugee status, and our responsibility to act, that remind us that they were never meant to be alone in fending for their needs.
In my remarks so far, I have offered UNRWA’s response to the question: “can we afford to leave Gaza in the margins?” I have answered “no” to this question and shown how – availing themselves of the extraordinary Palestinian resilience – UNRWA and other agencies, thanks to the support of the international community, take head-on the challenges of contributing to the well-being of the population. However, it is important to remind ourselves that while these organizations’ mandate is comprehensive in the humanitarian, human development and protection sphere, they are not the exclusive duty-bearers in relation to the people of Gaza.
The international community has contributed significantly to Gaza, and much more can (and must) be done as the blockade eases further and is hopefully lifted. But it is even more crucial to address the root cause of those needs, in particular where the needs and concerns of refugees and others intersect with the political realm and impinge on the larger questions facing Palestinians and the quest for peace.
While UNRWA, clearly, has no political mandate and is not engaged in the negotiations which will hopefully resolve both the conflict and the dispossession of the refugees, I believe that it is incumbent upon us to remind those involved in these important discussions of two important issues which, with the remainder of my time today, I would like you to consider.
The first is reconciliation among Palestinians. I am fully aware that the process of achieving reconciliation is for political actors to undertake and support. However, the healing of Palestinian rifts has implications for the well-being and future of Palestine refugees and other affected civilians in Gaza. It is from that vantage point that I appeal for Palestinian unity to be restored. And it is from that vantage point that I ask – with a sense of urgency – that the welfare of the people of Gaza is not held hostage by politics. I would be remiss, as representative of the Palestinian refugee agency, if I did not convey to all those with a stake in regional peace this simple but clear message which our teachers, doctors and social workers hear every day as they do UNRWA’s work among Gaza’s communities – and indeed among all Palestinian refugee communities across the region.
The second is peace, and the refugees whose destiny is bound up in it. As refugees emerged from - and exist as a consequence of - the 1948 conflict, it stands to reason that addressing their plight is a prerequisite for resolving the conflict. The extent to which refugee rights and choices are addressed in a negotiated settlement will affect the credibility of the settlement itself. Refugees are an essential constituency on account of the size of the population and its wide geographical distribution and significant presence in a volatile region. What is crucial to bear in mind is that – in the inevitably difficult discussions which will hopefully lead to the end of the conflict and, as part thereof, a just solution to their plight – we must ensure that refugees remain a constituency for peace and contribute constructively to the efforts to find solutions. Refugees hold a substantial stake in the Israeli-Palestinian future. Including them will ensure that the process will benefit from the wealth of insights they have to offer. This, in turn, will yield substantial advantages in enhancing the credibility and sustainability of the peace process. I will repeat this because it is important: Palestine refugees are a reality whose role and significance genuine peacemaking efforts can no longer afford to neglect.
So, Palestine refugees must not be ignored, and this goes hand in hand with the need to abandon the habit of marginalizing Gaza and keeping it in the shadows. We appeal for genuine efforts to help restore normalcy to Gaza, fully aware that the challenges are indeed daunting. The gloom surrounding Gaza may be formidable, but I ask you to join us in insisting that we have at our disposal the means to dispel it.
My call today is achievable. Let us do everything we can to give Palestinians and Palestine refugees opportunities to attain their considerable potential; the freedom to create for themselves a future of dignity and prosperity, and the liberty to make their own choices as further steps are hopefully taken towards the creation of a Palestinian state.