It is with a great sense of disappointment that 2014 is ending as yet another year without a durable solution to the plight of Palestine refugees. This year has bourne witness to violent conflict in the occupied Palestinian Territory that has yet again caused the irreparable and inconsolable loss of lives. Political failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict has forced the international community to seek ways through the emergency appeal of 2015 to alleviate the immediate suffering of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
The 2015 UNRWA emergency appeal of the occupied Palestinian territory that totals 414 million USD represents, in many ways, a sign of the collective failure to end the systematic suffering of Palestine refugees. At the same time, emergency assistance provided by UNRWA and other UN agencies represents a lifeline for Palestine refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory, many of whom cannot survive without such assistance.
I turn first to Gaza where the violence witnessed during this summer’s 50-day conflict in July and August resulted in the loss of over 2,200 lives, 11,000 injuries and the massive damage to already fragile infrastructure in Gaza including over 100,000 homes.
I wish to acknowledge the tragic loss of 11 colleagues in Gaza due to conflict-related incidents this year. Their strong dedication to serving their communities will always be remembered.
As Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl has repeatedly stated: the latest conflict in Gaza, its destruction and devastation, has rendered absolutely impossible, any form of return to the status-quo ante in Gaza. The blockade of Gaza imposed by the Government of Israel in 2007 has strangled the livelihood of Gazans, and is no longer tenable.
While the blockade remains the number one reason for the impeded development of Gaza, lives of the community are not on pause; the situation on the ground requires immediate attention to ensure that the basic humanitarian needs are met of this devastated population.
At the peak of the conflict in July and August, nearly 300,000 IDPs sought shelter in 90 UNRWA schools. Although some have already returned to their homes or found refuge with their families, 19,000 IDPs continue to seek shelter in 18 UNRWA schools. The destruction of homes during the recent conflict has further plunged Gazans into poverty and accentuated food insecurity. UNRWA’s emergency programme seeks to assist over 800,000 food-insecure refugees in Gaza. There is a special focus on children’s nutrition as 245,000 students will be provided one meal of fresh food per school day. This year following the conflict, with even fewer forms of livelihood due to the devastation of the economy, and damage incurred to homes, food insecurity has deepened in Gaza and represents the bulk of UNRWA’s emergency programme.
UNRWA’s food parcels of flour, rice, sugar, sunflower oil, whole milk and canned meat will reach food-insecure Palestine refugees but in many cases, the assistance is not enough to meet the basic food needs of abject poor families; these families will be provided with cash assistance to bridge the gap between the nourishment provided by the food parcel and their daily required food intake.
During my visit to Gaza in September, I was struck by the vision of destroyed factories and stores, wreaking devastation to the economic heart of Gaza and the meager economic income it provided to Palestine refugee families. Through this emergency appeal, UNRWA proposes to support the community through over 52,000 emergency cash for work opportunities as a dignified way for Palestinians to receive aid. A number of these cash for work positions will also be part of early recovery efforts undertaken by local businesses and reconstruction companies. The cash for work initiative will ensure that Palestinians are involved in the rehabilitation of the community.
The trauma instilled in children is not insignificant as many of them have bourne witness to the cycle of violence and panic that ensued around them during the conflict. There is a sheer sense of desperation in Gaza as many gasp for future opportunities to rebuild their lives amidst grave uncertainty. Community mental health provided through UNRWA’s emergency programme aims to ensure that psycho-social counselors strengthen coping capacities; all 252 of the Agency’s schools will also provide this critical service to students and teachers.
While all of these emergency interventions are critical lifelines for desperate Palestine refugees, they are not a substitute for longer-term development of Gaza which starts with the lifting of the blockade. The current slow rate of entry of material into Gaza for early recovery must increase in order to allow for the delivery of goods to support the rehabilitation of infrastructure and the economy. Without full rehabilitation in Gaza and the lifting of the blockade, Palestine refugees will continue to be deprived of meeting their full potential and they will continue to live in what is now an open air prison.
I turn now to the West Bank where recent spikes in violence have led to increasing numbers of search and arrest operations by the Israeli security forces.
There are growing numbers of civilian casualties and restrictions on people’s freedom of movement. These seemingly unabated practices of the occupation dispossess and displace Palestinians from their land and homes.
There has been a doubling of the number of violence-related deaths in the West Bank compared to this time last year. As of the end of October, 18 Palestine refugees had been killed by Israeli Security Forces, four of whom were children while 149 Palestine refugees were injured by live ammunition. This level of injury is more than three times the number in all of 2013. Refugee camps have become a place of heightened protection concerns. The use of live ammunition during operations by Israeli Security Forces as a means of crowd control also remains of grave concern to UNRWA.
Tension in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem has been exacerbated through the continuous illegal expansion of settlements. At the end of August, the Government of Israel announced plans to expropriate 4,000 dunums to construct the new illegal settlement of Gavot in the western part of the Bethlehem Governorate. Most recently in November, Israeli authorities approved the construction of 500 new housing units in the illegal settlement of Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem. These actions only exacerbate an extremely tense situation between Palestinians and Israelis and may serve as dangerous catalysts to further violence. Have the lives lost in Gaza been in vain? It is as though lessons from the recent intensified violence in Gaza, also linked to the tension in the West Bank at the time, have been irresponsibly forgotten as this constant provocation of settlement expansion feeds into the conflict. We join others in the UN family and remind the international community that these settlement activities are contrary to international law and the obligations of Israel as an occupying power.
Despite growing tension, Israeli authorities have also advanced plans to transfer Palestinian Bedouin communities in Area C – the majority of whom are Palestine refugees – which could involve their forcible transfer to three urbanized townships. Earlier this year, the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) published the design plans for one of the proposed townships in Nweima near Jericho. The relocation of the Bedouin refugee communities could make way for further Israeli illegal settlement expansion and compromise the viability of a two-state solution. These actions of Israel may amount to forcible transfer in contravention of international humanitarian law.
At the same time, demolitions of homes have continued in the West Bank including East Jerusalem. During the first 10 months of 2014, over 1,000 Palestinians (of whom over 54 per cent are children) were displaced in the West Bank as a result of such demolitions. Of those displaced, 32 per cent were Palestine refugees. Almost 86 per cent of the total demolished structures occurred in Area C, with the remaining 14 per cent of demolitions occurring in East Jerusalem. Of note is also the resumption of the illegal practice of punitive demolitions by the Israeli Defense Forces. Six Palestine refugee families have already had their homes demolished as a result.
Economically, the ongoing Israeli occupation and associated restrictions on movement and access to natural resources and land continue to stunt economic activity; the occupation is clearly preventing the creation of more livelihood opportunities for Palestinians. High rates of unemployment at 16.6 per cent amongst refugees and 15.7 per cent amongst non-refugees in the West Bank are an indication of the challenges of living amidst uncertainty. Through the emergency programme, UNRWA seeks to provide 10,000 refugees with cash for work opportunities to improve their ability to meet their basic household and food needs.
In addition, 25,000 vulnerable families will be provided with food vouchers enabling them to purchase fresh produce to supplement the family diet.
I would like to draw your attention to UNRWA’s plans to enhance its overall protection activities through its emergency programme in the occupied Palestinian territory. Without addressing the denial of even the most basic of human rights, long-term human development is impossible to achieve and the root causes of the plight of Palestinians will continue to dictate their crippled future development as a community.
The recent surges in violence have required greater engagement with the parties to conflict to ensure accountability and the application of humanitarian and human rights law.
Protection remains a key pillar of the work of UNRWA and through the emergency appeal, activities to monitor, document and report on protection incidents will be strengthened. In addition, operations support officers, who are funded through the framework of protection is embedded in all other service delivery programmes.
As mentioned earlier, it is clear that a just and durable solution to the plight to Palestine refugees and an end to the occupation remain integral to improving the lives of this increasingly vulnerable community. Each year, the situation is described as more volatile with compounded suffering inflicted on Palestine refugees. The report on Gaza 2020 which painted a bleak picture of the foreseeable uninhabitable conditions of Gaza remains a rapidly approaching reality. Daily life under military occupation in the West Bank creates a situation of untenable pressure within the community and is a reality that cannot be ignored.
2014 has been a particularly devastating year for Palestinians who continue to suffer under occupation and who continue to be robbed of their homes, their development and in many cases, their lives.
I will soon be leaving UNRWA and this is the last time as Deputy Commissioner-General that I will launch the emergency appeal for the occupied Palestinian territory. During my five years with UNRWA, I have witnessed the unequivocal deepening of suffering of Palestinians. It is my hope that one day, there will no longer be a need for the international community to launch an emergency appeal, an appeal that is a painful reminder of our long-standing failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. This conflict has plagued the lives of Palestinians for 65 years and has deprived Palestinians of their full freedoms and rights to development.
Although the situation of Palestinians under occupation continues to deteriorate at alarming rates, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that immediate humanitarian and longer-term development needs of this dispossessed community are met.
On behalf of the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, I wish to thank the donors and the states that have so generously supported UNRWA and Palestine refugees. I ask that once again, you do not forget the plight of Palestinians and that you choose to maintain the moral, political and financial support for this desperate community in need of our emergency support.