A Regional Perspective on Conflict and Exile: Reflections on the Palestine Refugee Experience

10 November 2009

Karen AbuZaydNovember 2009
   
Director Rami Khoury,
Distinguished faculty, distinguished guests,
Colleagues and friends of UNRWA:

I thank the Issam Fares Institute and the American University of Beirut for organizing this event and for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you tonight. At the end of this year, I shall retire as Commissioner-General of UNRWA, bringing to a close 28 years in the service of refugees, the last nine of these working with Palestine refugees in this region.

In preparing for this lecture, I found myself looking back at some of the refugee experiences I have witnessed first-hand and the high points of major refugee operations in which I was involved with UNHCR. I thought about the complex ways in which these experiences and operations reflect - and diverge from - the challenging conditions of Palestine refugees.

Time and again, I have seen played out in many scenarios the progression of refugee situations from the stage of persecution and conflict, which trigger flight, to the period of asylum and exile, to the phase of durable solutions through which the refugee plight is resolved. No two refugee situations are identical. Still, there is a likeness to some aspects of the refugee experience, particularly as regards the initial circumstances of flight and the ultimate stage where refugee status is resolved.

When people are compelled to flee, abandoning their homes and livelihoods and becoming estranged from their roots, the resulting pain and trauma are the same, regardless of the geographic location or national origin of the people seeking refuge. Wherever armed conflict features among the triggers for flight, we see similar patterns of suffering as the distress of forced dispossession is aggravated by death, injuries and the painful memories thereof.

The implications of refugee flows extend beyond the adverse human effects. In every instance of forced dislocation across national borders, the existence of refugees generates international consequences. The international community’s legal obligations to assist and protect refugees are engaged, and the provision of a temporary place of sojourn for refugees entails sacrifices by the countries and peoples offering refuge.

During the period of asylum or exile, the international community, including host countries and communities, are duty bound to ensure for refugees the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, to the fullest extent possible. The conditions under which refugees live should meet minimum standards stipulated in human rights instruments and access to health, education, social services and other facilities should assure reasonable human development prospects for refugees and their families.

There is a well-established international framework of instruments, principles and practice for protecting refugees [during exile], whether they live in or outside camps. These are of universal application because they draw their inspiration from United Nations values, human rights law and from the laws of war which protect civilians from the effects of armed conflict. There are, however, wide variations in their actual application. The extent to which refugee conditions meet the required standards depend on the capacity and willingness of the host government, the international community and concerned agencies to ensure the realization of these standards. This is an issue to which I shall return.

As with the circumstances of flight, the common features of the global refugee experience are apparent when, following interventions on the political level, conflicts are peacefully resolved through negotiations. Over the years, many disputes of the most intense kind have eventually been brought to a peaceful end, usually with the involvement of the international community and within the framework of international accords.

As combatants lay down their arms, conditions are created that enable refugees to avail themselves of one or another of three durable solutions – resettlement in third countries, integration in the host community, or return to their homes and places of origin—the preferred solution. Each of these solutions establishes a foundation on which refugees reclaim some of what they lost and lay to rest the burdens of dispossession and exile. Durable solutions offer the means by which refugees restore their sense of self and seize the prospects for normal lives of dignity and opportunity.

When we set the situation of Palestinians and Palestine refugees against the backdrop of these global norms, we see points of intersection principally in the human impact of the events surrounding the original displacement. In common with other refugees, Palestinians suffered during the onset of their exile – or the Nakba - in 1948.

The ensuing decades have not diminished the sharpness of the collective Palestinian memory of the pain of dispossession. As their refugee condition has persisted, passing the sixtieth milestone last year, so has the demand for their rights remained strong. In keeping with the universal refugee ethos, the passage of time and the succession of generations are powerless against the strength of the desire for justice and for a principled solution, which includes, at least as an option, the possibility of re-connection with the place they call "home".

In other aspects of what is often called "the refugee cycle" - the circumstances of exile and the stage of solutions – the Palestine refugee experience deviates, often significantly, from the trends and patterns elsewhere. The major areas of divergence are the conditions of Palestinian exile and the protracted elusiveness of a solution.

With regard to the conditions of exile, we would be hard pressed to identify in the Middle East a place where Palestinian refuge fully satisfies the minimum standards of human rights, human security and equal opportunity for development. Allow me briefly to consider the situations Palestine refugees face across the region.

Jordan and Syria

Refugees residing in Jordan and Syria enjoy the broadest spectrum of freedoms. They have economic rights and access to the employment market, and the stability of these countries means they are spared the trauma and risks associated with armed conflict. In both countries, refugee choices are constrained more by poverty, and UNRWA’s own lack of funds to maintain the quality of its programmes, than by any restrictions imposed by the authorities. Among the most fortunate are the refugees in Jordan who enjoy the privileges of special categories of Jordanian passports.

The advantages flowing from residence in Jordan and Syria, welcome and beneficial as they are, do not obviate the vulnerability inherent in the status of Palestinians as refugees. The benefits cannot substitute for a just and lasting solution.

The occupied Palestinian territory

In the occupied Palestinian territory is an example of human rights denied and fundamental freedoms trampled. A military occupation of over forty years combines with systematic abuses to create tragic conditions of conflict and exile.

Palestinians in the West Bank are overwhelmed by a plethora of physical impediments and the rigid application of harsh policies and laws. They are segregated and contained in zones whose boundaries are marked by the illegal separation barrier, and some 592 checkpoints and roadblocks. Israeli settlements consume large tracts of Palestinian land for settler housing, settler farms, security areas, buffer zones, access roads and bypass roads from which Palestinians are barred.

As a consequence of these measures and the invasive infrastructure of occupation, Palestinian residents are effectively confined in a mosaic of enclaves. Freedom of movement for Palestinians and their goods does not exist – certainly not in the sense in which human rights instruments intend. They are unable to fully access their land, their work, and in some cases, health care, schools, their families and places of worship. Palestinian livelihoods are held captive and their social and economic lives smothered. Poverty, unemployment and the absence of dignity have become fixtures in a bleak existence.

In outlining the climate of abuses in the West Bank, I must mention the practice of demolishing Palestinian homes and evicting Palestinians. Some observers see a systematic approach, gradually reducing the Palestinian population in and around East Jerusalem, which may well result in a zone of significant size completely free of Palestinians.

I must also mention the frequency with which Palestinians are arrested and imprisoned, often without trial. Arbitrary arrests and invasions of personal liberty and freedom disproportionately affect young Palestinian males, although the over 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons include 60 women and 390 children.

The evidence on the ground and the absence of any normalcy in the lives of Palestinians and Palestine refugees provide little cause for optimism. In a report published last month, the World Bank expresses reservations about reports of recovery in the West Bank, noting that the steps to ease restrictions in the West Bank "lack permanence and certainty and can easily be withdrawn or replaced with other restrictions." If so much gloom hangs over the West Bank, what might we say about Gaza?

Since the onset of the second intifada, Palestinians in Gaza have been assailed by an array of adverse experiences. The closure of Gaza’s borders since June 2007 and the 22-day war last winter are only two of the most recent low points in the lives of Gazans. The blockade preceded the recent war and intensified after it. Food, medical supplies and humanitarian aid are allowed in, but only in quantities carefully regulated to remain well below basic needs. Headline news is made by announcements that tea, coffee and 3,000 cows will be allowed into Gaza ahead of the coming Eid Al-Adha holiday.

The economy – such as it is – now revolves around the entrance and exit of goods through a complex of underground tunnels, and the construction industry is experimenting with the manufacture of building materials from mud and the recycling of rubble from the recent conflict.

However, no amount of ingenuity can mask the malnutrition, deep poverty affecting 80 per cent of the population, unemployment and collapse of public services which are the legacy of the deliberate isolation of Gaza. 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 (out of 1.1 million refugees).

The economy and the conditions of siege are not the only sources of misery. The firing of Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel continues, although at a very low frequency, while the response from the Israeli side remains robust, frequently causing death and injury. In Gaza a ceasefire does not necessarily mean the silence of guns, the cessation of hostilities or an end to the civilian casualties. All too often, periods of quiet have turned out to be opportunities to prepare for further eruptions of violence.

Distinguished colleagues:

Allow me now to focus on Lebanon. Here, currents of vulnerability are very much in evidence. From UNRWA’s vantage point, there are several strands that converge to threaten the well-being of refugees today.

Prominent among these is the memory of the role Palestinians played in Lebanon’s history of internal unrest and civil conflict. Closely connected with the Palestinian influence and Lebanon’s civil wars is the complex fragility of the country’s ethnic and religious constitution and the fine compromises that are necessary to achieve and maintain national stability.

Into this mix must be factored the susceptibility to intrusions by regional and international forces, both state and non-state actors, each with its own priorities and agendas and quite ready to exploit, including by military force, any frailties. Within the Palestinian camp itself there are divisions and struggles for political power, some of which reflect the internecine splits between Fatah and Hamas, generating their own ripples of instability.

Amidst this intricate matrix sits the community of Palestine refugees, itself reflecting the complexities, while, at the same time, reinforcing them. The camps in which some fifty per cent of the refugees reside are a stage on which Lebanon’s complex realities are played out. In the years since the early 1990’s, there has been a progressive isolation of Palestine refugees in Lebanon, both in a physical sense of limiting their presence to the camps and in terms of the constriction in the scope of economic and civil rights they enjoy.

Palestine refugees are not ascribed a legal status in Lebanon. Beyond what UNRWA can provide with its limited means and stretched facilities, the refugees have little access to medical care and social safety-net assistance. Prior to 2005, Lebanese law specified 70 some professions from which Palestine refugees were excluded. The Minister of Labour has since reduced the number to 20 professions and vocations, with medicine, pharmacy, law and engineering still prohibited, and the easing of the employment ban yet to take real effect. Over the years these restrictions have contributed to a high incidence of chronic poverty and high unemployment among Palestine refugees, which in turn compounds their marginalization.

This fundamental insecurity is reinforced by the dim prospects of a just and durable solution to their plight. In Lebanon’s climate of constant political jousting, some political factions exaggerate the risks of tawtin, thus stoking these fears for their own ends.

Sporadic episodes of violence in the refugee camps play to long-standing national anxieties regarding the Palestinian presence. The armed conflict 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, demonstrated the vulnerability of Palestine refugees on a scale not seen for many years, while also underlining the close interlocking between their interests and those of the Lebanese communities which host them.

At the same time, there are undoubted advantages to a gradual opening up the refugee camps. Marginalization and entrenched poverty have never served the ends of security or stability. On the contrary, restrictions breed radicalism and create an atmosphere in which disaffected youth become receptive to the call of militancy and violence. Boosting economic activity, raising standards of living and expanding life choices are goals whose benefits will extend beyond the camp boundaries. These benefits will eventually include the fostering of a climate in which camp residents define and seek their common security in non-belligerent terms. It is UNRWA’s hope that it will be possible to build on the positive signals from the government, and others, to generate agreement on a programme to accelerate the liberalization of economic opportunities for Palestine refugees in Lebanon. To achieve this, a broad consensus across political lines is essential, as is the consent and support of the refugees themselves, obtained through a process of genuine consultations.

It will also be vital for the objectives of liberalization to be framed along lines that are neither political nor adversarial and which steer clear of pre-conditions that might play into the hands of confrontational elements or risk triggering militant reactions. Ensuring that refugees enjoy living conditions that meet human rights standards is a discrete, non-political, international legal obligation. It is a goal whose pursuit is justified in and of itself by considerations of humanity, and cannot be confused with naturalization or any other durable solution.

These observations apply to all refugee camps in Lebanon, and they have a particular relevance to the rebuilding of Nahr-El Bared to enable its residents to reclaim the dignity of lives free from dependence on humanitarian assistance. Since the tragic events of 2007, and notwithstanding the frustrations in the slow pace of the reconstruction effort, there have been indications of constructive attitudes among a range of interlocutors, and with them the potential for the re-building of Nahr El Bared to serve as a catalyst for new beginnings. There is the possibility, for example, that in a newly re-built camp, security and policing arrangements could depart from the prevailing practice and be based on genuine cooperation between refugees and the Lebanese government.

The donor conference in Vienna in June 2008 raised some $120 million of the $445 million appeal for the reconstruction effort. The pledges fell below our expectations even though they are adequate for the purpose of commencing the construction process. Nevertheless, we appreciated the supportive statements of the majority of delegations, including from the Arab world, most of which acknowledged, without reservation, the refugees’ entitlement to have their community re-built, and recognized the link between reconstruction and the security of the Lebanese communities around Nahr El Bared.

Not only in connection with the re-building of Nahr El Bared, but also more generally, UNRWA is heartened by the efforts of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC). In spite of its constraints and the impediments to discharging its mandate, the LPDC’s very existence testifies to the possibilities for bridging decades of distance, and placing the Lebanese-Palestinian relationship on a cooperative footing of consultations, mutual trust and shared interests. The Committee’s focus on concrete, practical steps to enhance Palestinian living conditions is particularly welcome.

There has been a constructive attitude of the Lebanese government since 2005 and its readiness to confront difficult issues of Palestinian rights in new and courageous ways. Support from government – unequivocal, consistent support - is an indispensable ingredient in ensuring assistance and protection to refugees, particularly in the fraught environment of Lebanon. The effectiveness of the humanitarian and human development role of UNRWA and other agencies wholly depends on this.

Distinguished colleagues:

The Palestine refugee condition is severely challenged across our region.

[In the West Bank, Palestinians are fenced in. Their lands are expropriated and their living space constantly shrinks. In Gaza, similar results are achieved by other means, as the blockade and the effects of recurrent armed conflict impoverish and decimate the foundations of normal life. In Jordan and Syria, poverty and undercurrents of vulnerability remain. And in Lebanon, Palestine refugees are constricted as much by history and perceptions as by the curbs placed upon their freedoms.]

The gloom of the Palestinian condition of exile is matched by dim horizons for a just and durable solution to their plight. In the normal course of things, endeavors to end conflict and to create solutions are shared responsibilities lying squarely in the political realm and shared by the refugees, the country of asylum and the country of origin, along with the international community and one of the refugee agencies, and, peculiar to the Palestine refugee situation, by a hostile neighbour and occupying power.

Ideally, Israelis and Palestinians should be in the vanguard, exerting good faith efforts, restraining their recourse to the force of arms and actively exploring areas of compromise. The international community should be playing an enabling role, ensuring balance, serving as a trusted, impartial guarantor – if not enforcer - of international law, bringing even-handed leverage to bear equally on both sides and fostering an inclusive negotiation climate in which relevant constituencies are given a fair opportunity to contribute to a representative outcome.

This ideal scenario is not an impossible, utopian vision. Over the last two decades, such a vision has played out in reality in several conflicts and refugee situations around the globe. Yet there have been precious few occasions when this ideal tableau could be said to reflect the actuality of the negotiation process in the Middle East.

As things currently stand, the disparity between the peace process as it is and as it ought to be is as wide as it has ever been. The defects on all sides are many and grave. Deep divisions among Palestinians deny them the unified front they need and looming uncertainties about the future leadership of the Palestinian Authority give new voice to the question, "who speaks for the people of Palestine?" On the Israeli side, the stance on the settlement issue remains rigid and at odds with the spirit of compromise, as presumed US support fuels confidence in the ability to hold Palestinian demands at bay.

The international community, for its part, has for some time abdicated its proper role as custodian of a principled, inclusive process that is governed by a genuine concern for the long-term interests of both Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, we have seen a peace process in name, but not in substance, in form but not in content. We have seen the position of "honest broker" fall vacant and remain unfilled for long months. In its place is the inclination to refrain from holding both sides equally to account, while providing an open license for abuses that threaten the Palestinian soul and irreversible corrode the foundations of a Palestinian State.

From my perspective as the head of UNRWA, I am deeply concerned by lack of attention to the refugee question, stemming partly from its designation as a final status issue to be addressed at a later stage of negotiations. The slow pace and erratic progress of these negotiations means, however, that final status matters, including the refugee issue, are in effect indefinitely postponed. From the vantage point of refugee protection, to shunt the refugee issue into the shadows is counter-intuitive and contrary to the lessons learned from conflicts long-resolved. Refugees are the human manifestation of the pathological effects of conflict. As long as their situation is not definitively addressed, the conflict remains extant. By the same token, taking early steps towards resolving their state of dispossession could contribute significantly to tackling the roots of the conflict.

There are other considerations arguing for early – rather then delayed – attention to this matter. Genuine processes of consultation with refugees themselves must be at the heart of any effort to identify solutions. Refugee interests must be clarified and their concerns determined, and they must be provided with the information they need to make informed choices. Given the foreseeable operational complexities and bearing in mind the present size of the refugee community, a timely beginning to the consultation process would be wise.

Colleagues:

The picture of conflict and exile I have sketched is not a pretty one. However, it represents the reality, as I see it, of the trials in exile that Palestinians and Palestine refugees endure across our region. Yet these trials are not theirs alone. They are ours as well because when through negligence, acquiescence or indifference we – as an international community - deny to Palestinians their rights and freedoms, our own culpability is engaged.

Palestinian questions are not in a world apart. They impinge on our world, our interests and our security. If the prospects are ominous for Palestinians, then the outlook is bleak for us as well. The converse also holds true. If we could only fulfill the legitimate and enduring Palestinian demand for a State of their own, and if we could work with fresh urgency to secure with Palestine refugees a solution that is just and lasting, then all of us – Palestinians, Israelis and the international community - would reap the fruits of a more peaceful, prosperous region and a more stable world. That day cannot come soon enough.

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$ 68 million.

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