Exile, Conflict and Recovery: Dilemmas and Prospects in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Beyond

06 November 2009

University of York

Prince El Hassan bin Talal Annual Lecture in Post-war Reconstruction and Development

UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd


Vice Chancellor Professor Brian Cantor,
Professor Sultan Barakat,
Distinguished faculty, distinguished guests:

I am deeply honored to deliver the second El Hassan bin Talal Annual Lecture in Post-War Reconstruction and Development. I thank the University of York’s Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development Unit for this opportunity to share my thoughts.

As many of you will know, UNRWA’s mandate is to offer assistance and protection to registered Palestine refugees, currently 4.6 million strong, in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory. These refugees are the embodiment of the struggles and dilemmas of conflict and exile, as witness their quest, now over six decades old, for a just and durable solution to their plight. They - and their descendents - are among those holding the greatest stake in whatever prospects there might be for recovery from decades of strife and suffering across the Middle East. It is to these refugees that the honor of this lecture belongs.

UNRWA was established in the wake of the 1948 Israeli-Arab conflict, to provide relief for 800,000 residents of British Mandate Palestine who lost both homes and livelihoods and were forced into exile as refugees. UNRWA’s task was temporary. It was widely expected that the hostilities would rapidly come to an end, allowing the refugees to return home. Sixty-one years have now gone by and UNRWA itself is commemorating its 60th anniversary this year.

These anniversaries afford a time for recognition, acknowledgment and reflection. We must recognize that six decades on, Palestinians’ longing for a State of their own remains as legitimate and potent as it has ever been. We must acknowledge our collective failure to produce a negotiated settlement to one of the world’s most protracted conflicts, to end the occupation of Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and to ensure for Palestinians and Palestine refugees the dignity and opportunities promised them under international law. And we must reflect, objectively and dispassionately, on the experiences past and present, so that the lessons we glean may illuminate the path ahead.

The interplay among exile, conflict and recovery has been evident across centuries of human experience. History abounds with episodes of armed conflict -- recurring tragedies in which competing interests violently collide, often triggering dispossession, flight and exile, as those affected seek safe places of refuge.

Our experience also demonstrates, however, that there are countervailing trends. Throughout the post-1945 world, we have seen hostilities subside across all continents. The overall incidence of violent conflicts has fallen by 40 per cent since 1946. From 1992 to 2005, there was a 75 per cent decrease in the occurrence of civil wars. UNHCR’s statistics show a corresponding reduction in the number of non-Palestinian refugees seeking asylum, with some 11 million voluntarily returning home over the past ten years to rebuild their lives in their countries of origin.

These trends speak to the triumph of forces antithetical to violence and war and to the vitality of the universal impulse for peace, rebirth and renewal. These forces stimulate the search for an end to conflict, providing the stimulus for recovery, and enabling communities and nations to emerge from the shadow of turmoil and destruction.

These observations provoke a number of questions. What is the essence of exile, conflict and recovery in the Palestinian context? What are some of the factors influencing the relationship among these concepts and with what implications for Palestine refugees?

I shall outline some characteristics of exile and conflict in the Palestinian context and consider their global implications, including the consequences for reconstruction and development. This will allow for a forward perspective on the dilemmas confronting the international community in its search for a solution to Palestinian issues.

Exile and conflict in the Palestinian context

The Palestinian and Palestine refugee experience is defined by the dynamics of war, crises and unfulfilled expectations. "Palestine" is a metaphor for dispossession, the struggle for statehood and the quest for freedom from imposition on Palestinian rights, their physical and economic space and their dignity. Palestinian exile and the environment of conflict in which Palestinians reside impinge on the international plane. Their unfulfilled demands contribute to the volatility of one of the most sensitive regions in the world and pose serious challenges to multilateral security, the international rule of law and ultimately to the efficacy of the United Nations Charter.

The features of Palestinian exile

One of the more prominent characteristics of Palestinian exile is its sheer duration. UNHCR defines "protracted refugee situations" as those comprising "refugee populations of 25,000 persons or more who have been in exile for five years or more…" Against this measure, the Palestinian experience is a unique phenomenon. While those registered with UNRWA currently number in excess of 4.6 million, a more complete estimate would have to account for those not registered with UNRWA, as well as the approximately six million others in the world-wide diaspora.

The greater part of the initial wave of several hundred thousand refugees, who experienced the horrors of the 1948 war and original flight, will soon fade away. They leave behind the ranks of later generations who have little, if any, direct experience or recollection of life in the Palestine of old. Yet, I have seen no evidence among the younger generations to suggest a dwindling of their self-awareness as sons and daughters of the dispossessed. On the contrary, for these hundreds of thousands of young Palestine refugees whose entire life experience has been framed by their status as refugees, the consciousness of loss and the aspiration for justice remain undiminished.

Besides the duration of exile, adverse conditions of refuge are another defining feature of the Palestine refugee experience. Across the region and particularly in the occupied territory over the past nine years, the trend has been towards a progressive erosion of the rights and freedoms of Palestine refugees (and Palestinians generally), with a corresponding deterioration in the quality of their lives. I shall sketch the outlines of the Palestine refugee condition in three of UNRWA’s five areas of operation, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.

For the purpose of our discussion today, it suffices to note that refugees residing in Jordan and Syria enjoy the broadest spectrum of freedoms and stability.

Lebanon

In Lebanon, as in Jordan and Syria, the government and people have made sacrifices to maintain for Palestinians a place of secure refuge. Still, Palestine refugees contend with multiple risks and threats to their well-being in Lebanon. The memory of Palestinian militancy during the 1970s and 1980s is still fresh, and in a country that is acquainted with internal conflict and whose stability is finely balanced along demographic and inter-confessional lines, there is a lingering wariness regarding the security implications of refuge for over 400,000 refugees registered with UNRWA.

For many years, Palestine refugees were, by law, prohibited from moving freely within the country. They were denied access to professional and vocational employment and to public secondary schools. Deep poverty and abysmal living conditions in the refugee camps are a legacy of those years. In 2005, the government took steps to ease the socio-economic and legal restrictions on Palestinians, but there is still a long way to go before the daily lives of the refugees reflect these newly-granted freedoms.

Palestine refugees in Lebanon have shared with their Lebanese neighbors the experience of many episodes of armed conflict. The most recent instance in Nahr El Bared in 2007, which resulted in the total destruction of the refugee camp and the forced displacement of its 27,000 residents, was tragically illustrative of the complex factors that adversely influence the security of Palestine refugees.

Among other thorny questions, the conflict in Nahr El Bared raised issues around the relationship between entities wielding authority in these camps and the organs of the Lebanese government. It was a reminder that currents of acute militancy remain at large in the region and that elements committed to fomenting instability are prepared to exploit the isolated, unresolved situation of Palestine refugees to serve their own ends. As a result, the displacement of the refugees from a camp they had called home since 1948, served further to affirm the extreme vulnerability inherent in the label of "Palestine refugee".

The occupied Palestinian territory

I now turn to the occupied Palestinian territory where refugees and non-refugees alike experience the most abject and distressing conditions.

(i) The West Bank

In its present state, the topography of the West Bank bears no resemblance to the original land which, on the eve of the June 1967 Six-Day War, was under Jordanian control. At that time, eleven governorates were marked out with pristine clarity. Today, although these governorates are still in place, their boundaries are submerged beneath a profusion of superimposed physical impediments and demarcations. The result is an obliteration of the geographic integrity of the West Bank, the fragmenting of the governorates and the constriction of the living and working space available to Palestinians.

The Oslo Agreement in the early 90’s created three distinct jurisdictional zones which cut across governorate boundaries - Area "A" under Palestinian civil and internal security control, comprising 17.2 percent of the West Bank; Area "B" under Palestinian civil jurisdiction and joint Palestinian and Israeli internal security control, covering close to 23.8 percent; and Area "C" under full Israeli jurisdiction, about 59 percent the West Bank.

One might argue that the Oslo regime set the stage for a fracturing process by creating a precedent for arrangements to segregate and contain Palestinians in separate zones. The West Bank is saturated with these measures. From the latest count by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are some 592 physical obstacles impeding the movement of Palestinians and their goods.

The most visible are the illegal separation barrier, presently stretching over 400 kilometers, and checkpoints and roadblocks, both fixed and mobile. Israeli settlements in Area "C" consume large tracts of Palestinian land, not only for settler housing, but also for settler farms, security areas, buffer zones, access roads and bypass roads which Palestinians are prohibited from using.

The physical obstacles are underpinned by a rigid administrative regime of rules, prohibitions, permits and identity cards. These are implemented using sophisticated electronic surveillance systems and enforced under the rubric of military law.

The result is a patchwork of high density enclaves in which the Palestinian residents are effectively held to varying degrees of confinement. For its part, the permit regime furnishes the "management aspect", controlling the movement of Palestinians and their goods within and between their compartments.

If we accept that mobility is a prerequisite for sustainable livelihoods and for normal social, cultural and economic interaction, then it will be clear that the denial of Palestinian freedom of movement triggers a ripple effect of violations of other equally fundamental human rights. The humiliation Palestinians endure as they queue at and negotiate passage through checkpoints and other barriers is an affront to Palestinian dignity.

Another area deserving mention is the long-standing practice of demolition of Palestinian homes and evictions of Palestinians on the grounds that proper permits are lacking, or as punitive measures for security violations. In East Jerusalem, in particular, the practice has been pursued with increasing intensity, forcibly displacing tens of families, many of them already impoverished, ejecting them from homes they have lived in for decades, causing trauma and physical distress.

There is much to suggest that there is a deliberate, well-coordinated pattern at work, with several organs of the occupying power acting in tandem – the municipalities, the police, the military, civilian security entities and the courts whose decisions lend the process a mask of legality. Human rights groups have been quick to suggest that a longer-term goal is to reduce the Palestinian population in and around East Jerusalem, possibly with a view to eradicating the Palestinian presence altogether.

Violations of the right to liberty and of freedom from arbitrary arrest constitute another area of now familiar abuses. In an environment of sporadic, low intensity armed conflict, search-and-arrest raids are a daily occurrence, with young Palestinian males bearing the brunt. Palestinians in Israeli prisons are currently said to number in excess of 8,000, including 60 women and 390 children.

These, then, are some of the burdens of Palestinian exile in the West Bank – a compartmentalized existence circumscribed by crushing barriers, imperiled by threats and violations of fundamental rights and fraught with indignities.

It should come as no surprise that the people of Gaza are faring no better.

(ii) Gaza

The blockade of Gaza is without parallel. Over a million and half a million Palestinians, some 70 per cent of whom are refugees, reside within borders that have been sealed since June 2007. Only a minimum of basic food commodities, health supplies and humanitarian goods is allowed into Gaza. The importation of petrol, diesel, ‘non-essential’ food items and construction material is forbidden and a total ban on exports is in place (with the exception of a few truckloads of carnations twice negotiated by the Government of the Netherlands).

No aspect of life is spared, because the prohibited list covers a broad range of items most would consider essential to normal life - cash, books, paper and hearing aid batteries, light bulbs, candles, matches, blankets, tea, coffee, chocolate, nuts, clothes and shoes for growing children.

As only the bare minimum of imports is allowed, malnutrition and deep poverty are predictably on the rise. 80 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line, seventy percent depends on food aid for survival and the latest poverty surveys conducted by UNRWA’s social services department show that the number of abject poor – those completely unable to support themselves without humanitarian assistance – has tripled in recent months to reach 300,000 (our of 1.1 million refugees).

Public services, including in critical areas such as public health and waste disposal, are in a state of near collapse, since there are no spare parts. High unemployment levels and moribund commerce and industry have produced an economy almost entirely reliant on trafficking through a maze of underground tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt.

All construction materials are on the prohibited list. This means that UNRWA and other aid agencies are prevented from implementing plans to help Gazans recover from the devastation of the recent conflict and to rebuild their lives.

At the same time the firing of Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel, although drastically reduced, has not ceased, and Israeli military incursions and strikes remain a regular occurrence.

In groping for the right words to describe the Gaza situation, we are led to the provisions of human rights instruments, as they enable us to contrast minimum standards of humanity with the reality of the Palestinian condition in Gaza.

Even here, we run into the problem of exhausting the available material. Violations of Palestinian rights are so extensive that every article in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is invaded or flouted.

In seeking to project the misery of Gazans, we could do no better than to call upon the thoughts of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, himself a refugee, whose ability to plunge the emotional depths of the Palestinian experience is without peer. In his poem, State of Siege, Darwish observed:


The siege is a waiting period
Waiting on a tilted ladder in the middle of the storm

He goes on to declare:

In a state of siege, time becomes space,
Transfixed in its eternity;
In a state of siege, space becomes time
That has missed its yesterday and its tomorrow.

These were his thoughts during the invasion of Ramallah and Al Bireh in the spring of 2002, a siege that commenced on 28 March and ended on 30 April that year. The blockade of Gaza is now in its 28th month – an eternity by comparison. With his customary flair, Darwish employs the metaphor of the tilted ladder in a storm to convey the sense of desperate uncertainty, trapped in a narrow space and beset by adversity. With this powerful image of peril, he blends the sensation of drifting in a limbo so deep that time and space become interchangeable - perhaps even irrelevant - to everyday existence. Such, indeed, is the harsh, yet paradoxical experience of the people of Gaza.

The paradox lies in the contrast between the realities of life and the appearance of normalcy which often strikes visitors to Gaza. At first glance, you see streets full of cars, buses and motorbikes. You cannot tell that they run on fuel smuggled in through the tunnels. Shops display merchandise brought in via the same underground source. The fruit and vegetable stalls are brimming with the offerings of the season. The bright façade quickly fades when you realize that the shops are full because relatively few can afford their wares, that the vegetables and fruit are available because exports from Gaza are prohibited.

With a closer look, you realize that the relative sparkle of Gaza city is a world apart from the shelters and hovels of the refugee camps where poverty abounds. There, you will see homes as bare as only chronic destitution can make them. You will encounter people desperate for specialized medical treatment who are denied permission to obtain care outside Gaza, and students, bright, capable, ambitious, and with acceptances and scholarships from universities around the world, barred from leaving to pursue studies abroad.

You will observe families whose children show visible symptoms of chronic undernourishment, though what you cannot see are the scars of deep psychological and emotional trauma inflicted on every Gazan during the recent conflict. As you walk across the Gaza Strip, you will see foul evidence of the struggle to manage solid waste, and, closer to the coast, your senses will be assailed by the reality of thousands of liters of untreated waste pouring daily into the Mediterranean.

You will hear echoes of hope when you speak to the ordinary people of Gaza, but you will also hear sentiments of regret about prosperity foregone and about the years lost to turmoil and suffering – years in which, as the poet says, Gaza under siege has been transfixed, suspended in time, and so tightly sealed as to be insulated from any form of reconstruction or economic development. You will hear skepticism about future years that are placed in jeopardy by political uncertainties and by the failures of the international community and of their own leaders. In other words, you will see in the faces of the ordinary people, and hear in their voices, the specter of a Gaza which has "missed its yesterday" and is fearful of missing its tomorrow.

Distinguished colleagues:

Our topic demands that we consider for a few moments the contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it has played out, for the most part, in the occupied territory.

Features of the conflict

War and exile are inextricably linked. The life-span of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a reflection of the duration of the forced estrangement of Palestinians from the land they call home. This is a dispute between peoples that has proved more intractable than almost any other in modern times. Its persistence recalls the remark attributed to Homer, "Men grow tired of sleep, love, singing and dancing sooner than of war".

From year to year, episodes of high-intensity engagements, accompanied by the annexation of land, forced mass displacement and casualties have served to re-fuel the reserves of suspicion and antagonism on both sides, cementing the determination of each to prevail by force of arms. Periods of calm have proved uneasy, fraught with sporadic engagements, effectively serving as intermissions for regrouping and planning for the next major eruption.

There are many reasons for the persistence of this conflict and its resistance to resolution. I shall mention a few, with a view to highlighting their relationship to the Palestine refugee issue and their contribution to the dilemmas facing the world and the international community.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one aspect of a broader schism between Israel and Arab States who have been active combatants during the 1948 conflict and in subsequent wars in 1956, 1967 and 1973. Given this regional dimension, the stakes are high and the risks of a broader conflagration are ever present.

Both Israelis and Palestinians see their confrontation as existential in nature. Questions of national identity and religion that are rooted in antiquity converge with the profoundly emotive modern day issues relating to claims to land, water, natural resources and national survival. These issues run counter to the impulse for compromise and rationality, and for this reason, pose a challenge to efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully. Already complex enough in themselves, these underlying issues are further reinforced by the actual and perceived asymmetries of the confrontation.

On the one side is the State of Israel, a democratic, nuclear-armed, middle-income country with a Gross Domestic Product of $ 188 billion and a regular army whose firepower and technological sophistication are internationally renowned. As a nation of 7.4 million surrounded by 21 Arab States with a combined population in excess of 300 million, Israel’s military might is readily deployed whenever its sovereignty or its existence are perceived to be at risk.

On the Palestinian side is an assortment of non-State entities and militias, some designated by some governments as terrorist groups, and each with access to a variety of external sources of political and financial support. These entities and militias represent diverse world views, political agendas and visions of a Palestinian state. Here, there are appeals to the primacy of the right to take up arms in pursuit of self-determination. Here, we find a deep conviction in the justice of recourse to violence as a means to end the occupation, to repel the forces responsible for Palestinian suffering and to create a Palestinian State. On this side, where, for some, religious value is attached to martyrdom, there is a long-term perspective to what is seen as the struggle against Israeli oppression, a tolerance for casualties and readiness to deploy unconventional, technologically limited methods of warfare. There is as well a belief in the inevitability of victory against overwhelming military odds.

The point, however, is that regardless of the differences in military profiles, and the particular gloss either side may wish to place on its approach to the conflict, the principles and rules of international law apply with equal force to both sides and are equally violated by both sides.

One protagonist may not cite its lack of advanced weapons as an excuse to target civilians on the other side with home-grown weaponry. The other side may not refer to the other’s alleged violations to justify its own lack of restraint in the conduct of war.

The framework of international law is by and large blind to asymmetry between protagonists. Both Israelis and the Palestinians share the same obligations to respect, and ensure respect, for the relevant principles and rules, including human rights law and international humanitarian law.

This brings me to a feature which has particular relevance for our discussion, namely, the international character of Israeli-Palestinian issues and, as a consequence, the elevated importance of the international community’s obligation to address the current conflict.

These issues go to the heart of the UN Charter’s vision of a world founded on principles of justice, compliance with international law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction, limitations on the use of force and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

A heightened role for the international community is further demanded by the history of violations that have characterized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As these violations not only cause extreme suffering, but also endanger regional and international security, they engage the responsibility of UN member States, as stipulated in the UN Charter, "… to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace." [UN Charter, Article 1 (1)]. Aberrations from universal norms as sustained, as grave and as systematic as they are in the occupied territory, must be the concern of all of us.

In addition to infringements of human rights standards I mentioned earlier, the conflict is infamous for serious and recurrent departures from the principles and rules of international humanitarian law – the legal rules that seek to protect civilians and non-combatants from harm, and which obligate combatants to restrain their actions by reference to considerations of humanity and military necessity.

Throughout my nine years of living and working in Gaza, I have observed first hand the most dramatic of the military assaults conducted in the occupied territory during the second intifada.

It has been apparent to me that the firing of rockets into Israel, the wanton style of military operations in Gaza and the high civilian toll could hardly be what international humanitarian law intended. During his tenure as UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, John Dugard, the South African jurist, described repeated breaches on both sides, sounding the alarm again and again in his reports. In the aftermath of the recent conflict a fact-finding mission dispatched by the League of Arab States highlighted the divide between the approach of both sides to the conduct of hostilities and the standards demanded of them under international law.

The Goldstone report

It was not, however, until the recent publication of the Report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict - the Goldstone Report - that the burning questions relating to violations of international law in Gaza were thrust into the forefront of international attention, granting these questions a profile they have seldom had. For these reasons alone, the Goldstone Report marks a watershed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Report casts light on the harrowing experiences of civilians in Gaza and the resulting questions of accountability under international law – areas which for too long have been overshadowed by the geo-politics of the Middle East.

Goldstone recommendations

The recommendations of the report cover subject areas as wide as the mission’s mandate. The report recommends an end to the blockade of Gaza, freedom of movement for Palestinians, the release of those Palestinians in Israeli prisons in connection with the occupation, and an end to Israeli interference with the political processes in the occupied Palestinian territory. It calls on the General Assembly to establish a fund to be used to compensate Palestinians who suffered loss and damage as a result of unlawful actions during the war.

The Security Council is requested to refer the report to the International Criminal Court if the parties fail to conduct their own investigations to international standards. The Mission encourages States parties to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, of which there are 194, to invoke universal jurisdiction and commence criminal proceedings in their national courts.

Implications of Goldstone report

The Goldstone report is a monumental landmark. It signals a critical move towards enforcing the rule of international law and is a powerful demonstration of the universal and equal application of legal principles and rules to all – States and non-state entities alike. In this regard, it exemplifies the ascendancy of humanitarian principles, protecting individuals to a plane on par with considerations of State security and military policy.

It is noteworthy that that a large proportion – 29 of the report’s 43 recommendations are addressed to international entities. It throws down the gauntlet of responsibility to the community of States, making it clear that while parties to the conflict bear primary responsibility, the importance of the issues at stake demand the involvement of all UN member States.

Issues of recovery, reconstruction and development

Distinguished guests:

I have dwelt at some length on the features of exile and conflict, demonstrating the extreme conditions under which Palestinians and Palestine refugees live. I now turn to the issues of recovery, reconstruction and development and consider how these fit within the context of exile and conflict in the occupied territory.

The importance of these issues is clear. Recovery, reconstruction and development are linked to the realization of economic, social and cultural rights which under international instruments are guaranteed to all peoples. These concepts also speak to the strength and viability of States. In the Palestinian context, they acquire critical importance because a Palestinian State, with strong, sustainable economic foundations to come into being and to thrive.

A primary ingredient for State-building is the economic potential of the Palestinian people. In the period prior to 1967 and before the closure regimes attained their present levels of constriction, the Palestinian territory boasted positive economic indicators and growth rates. In 1999 for example, the World Bank estimated real GDP growth of the Palestinian economy at 8.6 per cent.

A vibrant industrial and private sector showed signs of serving as the engine for a successful economy. Palestinians’ thirst for education and the high value accorded to intellect and skills are reflected in impressive literacy rates, among the highest in the region, in the efficiency of the public sector relative to other regional countries and in the large numbers of emigrant Palestinians excelling in a variety of professional callings worldwide.

Investments in health and education by the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA have borne fruit in indicators that are superior to those elsewhere in the region. Secondary school overall enrollment rate in the Middle East and North African region is above 70 per cent, while in Gaza and the West Bank it exceeds 90 per cent. The regional figure for infant mortality stands at 32 per 1,000 live births, compared with 24 per 1,000 live births in the occupied territory.

The traditional generosity of the donor community towards the Palestinian Authority is another ‘positive’ factor. Extraordinary sums of donor assistance as well as extensive technical support have been channeled into the Palestinian economy. For the past fifteen years, the occupied territory has been the recipient of one of the highest per capita international assistance sums in the world. It is estimated that in excess of $15 billion has been disbursed in official foreign aid since 1993.

To this figure must be added the funds donated by Arab and other donors through non-governmental and charitable organizations as well as through UNRWA and other development, humanitarian and protection agencies. Further streams of donations are dedicated to emergency activities and reconstruction.

One aspect of this trend is the Palestinian Authority’s increasing dependence on foreign assistance and budgetary support to cover the salaries of its staff and its operating costs. According to the World Bank, budget support for the Palestinian Authority is expected to exceed $1.1 billion in 2009.

In spite of the positive elements, it would require a considerable stretch of the imagination to apply the term "post-conflict recovery" to the conditions in Palestine. In Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians lead captive lives under military occupation and in a state of war, as they have done since 1967. Across the region, including in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, Palestine refugees are frozen in a waiting period of exile.

Given the degree to which Palestinian rights are deliberately compromised, it cannot be said – or expected – that recovery, reconstruction and development can realistically be achieved, without a radical and genuine restoration of normal conditions of life. This point has been made repeatedly in successive reports by the World Bank and other expert agencies. In a September 2009 study, A Palestinian State in Two Years: Institutions for Economic Revival, the World Bank expresses reservations about reports of recovery in the West Bank, noting that the steps to ease restrictions "lack permanence and certainty and can easily be withdrawn or replaced with other restrictions."

The report concludes that "sustainable economic recovery will remain elusive if large areas of the West Bank - currently almost 60 per cent of the land – remain inaccessible for economic purposes and restricted movement remains the norm for the vast majority of Palestinians and expatriate Palestinian investors."

The occupation and decades of conflict are also depleting Palestine of the people who constitute its most precious resource. Evidence points to Palestinian emigration in the tens of thousands over the past nine years. With each reluctant departure, Palestine loses a portion of the financial capital, skills and knowledge it badly needs for nation-building. Those left behind, particularly children and youth, find their human potential at grave risk. Present and future productive capacities are diminished by the long term effects of physical injuries and the psycho-social trauma of the experience of recurrent conflict.

For some time there has been for some time a pattern of deliberate targeting of Palestinian economic assets. Olive trees, citrus groves, green houses and vegetable farms have been razed, and livestock killed, by Israeli forces and by Israeli settlers in frequent spasms of violence against Palestinians.

The evidence compels a dim outlook as regards sustainable progress in recovery, reconstruction and development. The international community must continue to support and assist Palestinians in these areas and UNRWA, as other agencies, will remain devoted to the human development work through which a difference has been made in the lives of millions of refugees.

These efforts are essential to the survival of the Palestinians and Palestine refugees and to preserving the chances for future advances. It must, nevertheless, be acknowledged that the weight of the occupation, the nature of the conflict and the extensive nature of human rights abuses, seriously inhibit concrete, long-term economic progress of the kind needed to establish solid foundations for a Palestinian State. In the face of the realities, proposals for pursuing "an economic peace" that is somehow separate and removed from the need to address the fundamental political questions sound hollow at best.

Distinguished guests:

We have arrived at the point where we may raise our sights to ponder what prospects lie in store for Palestinians and Palestine refugees.

The inherent vulnerability of Palestine refugees and the dire conditions of their exile are threads running through our discussion. In the occupied territory, refugees share with other Palestinians the effects of assaults on their livelihoods and dignity. However, their status as refugees entails additional layers of misery. They and their descendents have lived for sixty years in a state of waiting - waiting for a solution that will resolve, justly and durably, the loss and dispossession they endure.

Within this matrix of unfulfilled aspirations sits the international community. On all counts – the fraught conditions of exile, the travesties perpetrated in the name of war, the need for a solution to the refugee condition and the establishment of a Palestinian State – the responsibility of the community of States is, or should be, directly engaged.

As an international community, we have – where Palestinians are concerned - fallen short of the solemn pledges we have made, as joint custodians of a world ruled by justice and the rule of law, "to take joint and separate action" to realize the principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter. There is a yawning chasm between those principles and purposes and the wretchedness of the Palestinian condition.

Try as we might to look the other way, the Palestinian question stalks us, shaming our dithering, and decrying our preference for form over substance in peace processes which have more to show in cycles of choreographed meetings than substantive outcomes. Along with other so-called final status issues, refugee questions have been held in abeyance as they are thought too contentious to be on the agenda until negotiations have advanced to a later stage.

As the head of an agency with a mandated duty to contribute to a just and lasting solution to the Palestine refugee issue, I question the validity of the prevailing logic and call for its reversal. One cannot overstate the centrality of the refugee issue to the resolution of the broader questions underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The growing size and distinctiveness of the refugee constituency argues for their interests to be given priority in negotiation processes. The complexity of refugee matters means that considerable time will be required to ascertain the interests and choices of the refugees and formulate arrangements to give effect to them. For these reasons, reflecting refugee concerns early in the negotiation effort will bear fruit in generating confidence in the process and promote acceptance of its outcomes.

The quest for a negotiated settlement to the conflict has long been afflicted by a crisis of credibility. There is much to do to bring objectivity and balance to the process and to create a negotiation culture which welcomes participation by parties that represent Palestinian constituencies. In such a culture, the negotiation methods and procedures would be driven – not only by politics and the foreign policy preoccupations of any State – but rather by principles of international law and the lessons from successful instances of conflict resolution

The factors contributing to the credibility of negotiations include the extent to which the parties at the table are perceived as credit-worthy representatives of stakeholders on the street. Credibility of process is in turn a pivotal factor influencing the degree to which negotiation outcomes are likely to command broad acceptance among the rank and file. With these considerations in view, the international community must seek ways to forge a negotiation process in which the majority of the Palestinian body politic sees itself reflected.

We - the international community - must be conscious of the need to shore up our own credibility in Palestinian eyes. If efforts towards a negotiated settlement are pursued in the name of Palestinians as a party to the conflict, then we must prove ourselves deserving of their trust.

To do this, leading international actors must recognize that a conflict as complex and entrenched as this one will not be transformed at the behest of lofty oratory or by well articulated intentions alone. We must also deal with the fact that neither side to this conflict appears to be motivated to make the efforts – let alone the sacrifices - required to move the peace process meaningfully forward. Neither side shows any sense of urgency about renewing the drive for a solution. Accordingly, we must be prepared to engage Israel and the Palestinians firmly and even-handedly, holding them to their obligations under international law. To achieve this, leading actors must take risks of their own. They must find the courage to follow promises of change with the courage to work for that change.

An ancient Athenian playwright is credited with observing that, "Men in exile feed on dreams of hope". I can personally testify to the truth of this observation about Palestinians, for whom hope is a constant on the menu of life. Palestinians never fail to amaze with their strength and generosity of spirit and their fortitude in adversity. Amidst the gloom and uncertainty, resilience and a belief in a better tomorrow have always been apparent.

This, however, is precisely what should give us pause. For sixty years, we shirk our duty to help address Palestinians’ plight. Then we celebrate their fortitude and resilience in exile, as though this excuses our decades of neglect. As an international community, we have excelled as much in grand promises to the Palestinian people as we have in breaking our vows. With our mantra of two state solutions and human rights and our endless processions of peace processes, we have made an art of transporting Palestinians to heights of anticipation, only to puncture their faith with our habitual failures to deliver, generating disillusionment and leaving them marooned on the precipice of despair.

And so it is that we have created a tableau in which hope has become a prized possession, yet one which Palestinians would rather not have because where hope exists, there is a painful absence of that which is hoped for.

Therefore, we must do what we can in tandem with Palestinians to relieve them of the burden of hope they have carried for too long. What they crave for themselves and their children – peace, security, dignity and the opportunity for prosperity – is a state of things which we take for granted and which the international community has helped many other peoples and nations to accomplish. What Palestinians ask - and we must heed – is that we do likewise with them. We must help the people and leaders of Palestine to move from the realm of dreams to the material world, fulfilling their aspiration for a State of their own. We must work to help fulfill, for Palestine refugees, what has for long been denied - a just and lasting solution to their plight.
         

Background Information

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency's General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at US$ 56 million.

For more information, please contact:

Christopher Gunness
UNRWA Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 240 2659
Office: 
+972 (0)2 589 0267
Sami Mshasha
UNRWA Arabic Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 216 8295
Office: 
+972 (0)2 589 0724

Gaza Emergency Donate Message 2
US$ 40 FEEDS A PERSON TWO DAILY MEALS FOR A WEEK