United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People

11 March 2009

Keynote Speech by UNRWA Commissioner-General

Cairo, 10 and 11 March 2009 

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies, Distinguished guests:

I thank the Palestinian Rights Committee for dedicating this meeting to supporting international efforts for the recovery and reconstruction of Gaza.

The plight of Palestine refugees since 1948, the occupation of Palestinian land since 1967 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have long been among the more prominent issues of concern to the international community. The recent episode of armed conflict in Gaza rekindled that concern in ways few could have predicted and raised the global visibility of the Palestinian question to new heights. The UN Security Council deliberated on Gaza on 27 January. Just last week, Heads of State and governments along with international agencies gathered in Sharm El Shaikh to pledge their support for the recovery of Gaza. It was encouraging to hear, as speaker after speaker took the floor, that there is consensus on assisting Palestinians to overcome the challenges they face.

This United Nations Seminar is a further expression of the international community’s continuing interest in understanding and resolving the Palestinian issue. It provides an opportunity for this audience to acquaint itself with the current socio-economic and humanitarian condition of Gaza and to ponder the questions generated by the conflict. As this gathering is held under the aegis of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian people, we are afforded the latitude to inform our discussions with perspectives from the rights that are guaranteed to Palestinians by binding international instruments.

In many respects, the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory demonstrates the abridgment, denial or violation of human rights rather than their observance. The recent experience in Gaza was a painful reminder of the dire challenge posed to the enjoyment by Palestinians of even "inalienable" rights that are inherent to every human being and cannot be forfeited or repudiated.

In this regard, the human right to self-determination is the essential point of departure. As international instruments stipulate, it is from the exercise of self-determination that the free pursuit of economic, social and cultural development flows. In the Palestinian context, the right to self-determination is frustrated by the persistent Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, with all the travesties that entails. A continuing occupation is the antithesis of a viable Palestinian State existing in peace and security with its neighbours.

When we consider the closure of Gaza’s borders, and the human misery it continues to cause, I suggest we consider how it reflects on Palestinians’ right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment on the rights, as well as its implications for liberty and security, the right to freedom of movement and the entitlement of everyone to a decent standard of living.

The extent of civilian casualties was evidence of the paucity of respect for the right to life. With nearly 1,400 dead, including some 431 children, and more than 5,380 injured, many of them seriously including 1,872 children, critical issues of international humanitarian law demand attention. The most notable of these include the right of Palestinian and Israeli civilians to be protected from the effects of armed conflict and the critical need for both sides to exercise restraint, as required by international law, in their choice of methods and weapons.

I suggest we approach the agenda ahead of us, keeping in view the overarching rubric of fundamental rights and freedoms. Framing our interventions in these terms helps to underline that the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations and the fact that their demands – and ours on their behalf – are firmly grounded in international law. This should, in turn, give added impetus to our efforts to assist and protect Palestinians and Palestine refugees.

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies:

Allow me to turn briefly to the current situation in Gaza. In the wake of unrestrained bombardment for 22 days, by land, sea and the air, the present state of affairs has taken to a more distressing level the desperate living conditions prevailing before 27 December 2008. The most significant new elements are the human impact of the conflict and the destruction of public and civilian infrastructure across Gaza. These exacerbate the deep deprivation of the Palestinian condition, posing substantial challenges to the prospects for recovery and reconstruction.

Every Gazan now lives with the trauma engendered by the recent conflict. The intensity of the bombardment was such that every civilian resident in Gaza was affected by profound anxiety and fear, if not by injury or bereavement. Gazans still speak of the desperation of living for days without food, water or electricity and their bewilderment at being targeted even though they are civilians with no affiliation with militants or political entities. They convey the feeling of being hunted, and of having no place of safe refuge. Clearly, addressing the psycho-social impact of the recent conflict will require much expertise and time.

Turning to the material devastation of the conflict, an estimated five hundred factories were seriously damaged or destroyed, including Gaza’s largest flour mill and concrete and asphalt factories. The American School in Gaza took direct hits, destroying it beyond repair. 2,800 refugee homes suffered a similar fate, while up to 20,000 other homes may require repairs of various kinds. UNRWA’s engineers are still collecting data on the extent of the damage. 15 hospitals and 41 primary health care centers were partially damaged and two Primary Health Centers were destroyed. 57 UNRWA facilities were targeted or damaged by shrapnel. These included the Gaza Field Office compound and warehouse, 37 schools and various other premises.

This extensive damage has adverse consequences for the economy, employment and the public sector. The signs are worrying. Aid dependency in Gaza is at an alarmingly high level. UNRWA feeds one million refugees in Gaza. WFP, responsible for the non-refugees, is working to increase its caseload in response to higher demand. The municipal authorities report that 50% of Gazans have running water for only 6 to 8 hours every second day. Another 10% receive running water every five days, while some 10% of Gaza’s population have no running water at all and have to rely on sporadic deliveries by tankers.

Since the beginning of February, Israeli authorities have permitted increased supplies of industrial fuel for the Gaza Power Plant, allowing an improvement in the electricity supply. Those in the most favourable position in Gaza City and North Gaza receive six- to eight hours of electricity three days of the week. Throughout Gaza, unscheduled power failures still persist.

The fundamental impediment to normal life in Gaza remains the closure of Gaza’s borders to the free two-way flow of people, commerce and humanitarian supplies. In response to appeals by UNRWA and the international community, Israeli authorities have promised in public and in private that the blockade of Gaza will be eased. It is a matter of regret and deep concern that these promises are yet to be fulfilled, with serious consequences for the ordinary people of Gaza.

Items prevented from entering Gaza include paper for textbooks and plastic pellets for producing the wrapping for food distribution. Lentils, pulses, fruit juice and tomato juice are periodically not approved for entry into Gaza. Israeli authorities alone decree what (and how much) will be allowed into Gaza. They alone decide what items do not risk Israel’s security and therefore qualify as "humanitarian aid". In light of our experience thus far, it is difficult to say that rationality or genuine humanitarian considerations – let along Israel’s international obligations - have any influence on the decisions about the Gaza’s border closures.

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies:

Having briefly described the impact of the recent conflict and offered a sketch of the current situation, I will now share my outlook on the steps we must take towards the recovery and reconstruction of Gaza.

From UNRWA’s vantage point as a humanitarian and human development agency, we have a clear path for action that is shared by sister UN agencies and other partners. In the six decades since UNRWA was established, we have kept faith with Palestine refugees, ensuring their access to a variety of essential services, including protection interventions in times of armed conflict and other emergencies. We have also maintained an advocacy role, highlighting Palestinian predicament and calling for action by States and other international actors to address it.

UNRWA is drawing from this experience and coordinating with donors and other partners to tackle the challenges ahead. A nine-month Consolidated Gaza Flash Appeal for $613 million has been issued by OCHA. Our sister agencies, FAO, WFP, UNICEF, WHO, OHCHR, UNDP and UNMAS are requesting $287 million for agriculture, cash assistance, education, food security, health, protection, psycho-social, shelter and water and sanitation activities. UNRWA’s component of the Flash Appeal is $326 million to fund services specifically for the 1.1 million refugees in Gaza. These funds will enable us to implement activities in the areas of education, food, job creation, cash assistance, shelter, health, psycho-social and environmental health.

UNRWA began implementing a Quick Recovery Plan immediately after the conflict, enabling 200,000 children to return to school within six days of the declaration of unilateral ceasefires. For medium-term reconstruction beyond the initial recovery phase, quality primary education is a top priority for the refugees and UNRWA. Our aim is to eliminate double shift schooling by constructing 100 new schools and a teacher training college. Overall, the estimated cost of the medium term education interventions is $200 million.

In the construction sector, we will re-build 2,800 homes destroyed during the recent conflict in addition to 1,400 others from previous conflicts and a further 4,000 sub-standard shelters that are beyond repair. The overall shelter sector costs are estimated at $246 million.

In the health sector, the total estimated for UNRWA’s longer term activities, including the construction of new clinics or enhancement of existing clinics is US$10 million.

These plans will become a reality for Gazans if, and only if, presently and in the years ahead, the significant contributions we have already received are sustained and augmented by the entire donor community. Given, not least, the influence of Gaza’s condition on the security of Israel and of the region, I trust that our donors will demonstrate the higher levels of generosity necessary to transform the desperate conditions in Gaza into a situation where hope and a better life are possible.

However, the free two-way flow of people, commerce, currency and humanitarian supplies is an essential pre-condition for the achievement of our recovery and reconstruction objectives. To maintain the blockade with all it entails for the isolation of Gazans sontravene the commitments of States under international law.

Ultimately, however, the future of Palestinians and Palestine refugees and of the security of Israel and the Middle East rests with political actors and the success of negotiations for a peaceful resolution of this conflict. UNRWA and its humanitarian and human development partners will continue to strive to ensure essential services for Palestinian civilians. These services promote the enjoyment of key human rights and are vital for Palestinian dignity and well-being. However, they fulfill only a part of their entitlements and do not touch matters lying at the heart of Palestinian aspirations, namely a peaceful end to armed conflict and the occupation, self-determination and justice.

Working as one, the international community must promote reconciliation among Palestinians and secure the integrity of the occupied Palestinian territory. The rule of international law must be upheld and impartially enforced, ensuring that all are held accountable and none are deemed above the law. Negotiations towards resolving final status issues must resume in earnest within an inclusive framework in which final status issues, including the refugee question, are addressed in a fair and just manner consistent with protection principles. And we must devote ourselves to creating conditions in which a viable Palestinian State can emerge to take its place in the community of independent, responsible nations.

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies:

Working towards these objectives is the least we can do to fulfill the UN Charter’s promises and to ensure, for Palestinians and Israelis alike, a future of peace, security and, eventually, prosperity.

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$ 70.5 million.

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