Al-Quds meets with UNRWA’s new Commissioner-General

11 February 2010

Jerusalem – Zaki Abu el Halaweh

The new Commissioner-General of UNRWA Filippo Grandi reiterated that the situation in Gaza is not acceptable and that there are one million refugees paying the cost of political complications.

In his first press interview with Palestinian media, Grandi told Al-Quds newspaper that it is not acceptable for UNRWA to remain facing financial deficits. He stressed that there will be serious attempt to address this issue.

Grandi demanded Israel open the crossings in order to allow entry of building materials needed for Gaza reconstruction, and warned that the continuation of the blockade and closure policy against the Gaza Strip would affect the services that the Agency provides.

Grandi also said that accepting $10m compensation from Israel does not enervate the position of the UN.

Following is the full text of the interview that took place at Dheisheh camp in Beit Lahem:

Q: In the beginning, we wish to congratulate you for your appointment as Commissioner-General of UNRWA to succeed Karen AbuZayd, and we wish also to thank you for allowing Al-Quds newspaper to have the first press interview with Palestinian and Arab media. You witnessed with UNRWA and refugees numerous challenges during your work as deputy Commissioner-General. What are the main challenges that face UNRWA in 2010 and which of these challenges will be the main focus for you during the first months of your work?

A: Thank you for your congratulations, and I really need encouragement during these first few weeks in my job, as I realise it is going to be a difficult task. The challenges that face UNRWA are myriad, but the main challenge is the one that faces Palestine refugees in Gaza Strip, West Bank and Jerusalem. The challenges they face are multiple and difficult, and the role of UNRWA in addressing these challenges is multiple as well. And because UNRWA serves huge number of refugees, its first role would be following up with the restrictions imposed on movement and the difficulties that Palestinians face due to the imposed regulations; as well as working in order to lift these unjust actions against refugees and non-refugees.

The second task is to work on advocating the issues and rights of refugees that are being violated on a daily basis, the matter that doubles the role of the Agency on this. This is the main challenge for me.

The second challenge is the stringent financial crisis that faces the Agency. This is completely unacceptable that the Agency remains, year after year, facing a 20 per cent financial deficit. This matter causes a crisis in service provision for refugees. I am deeply concerned at this issue, and there will be serious attempt to address this chronic financial crisis of UNRWA.

Q: You visited Gaza two days ago and met with families that were affected by the recent floods, and that suffered from difficult humanitarian conditions due to the protracted blockade, the lack of a political solution and the absence of favourable conditions for Palestinian conciliation. What is the attitude of UNRWA towards the situation in Gaza, and how it will address these enormous challenges?

A: UNRWA is not at all naive, as it realises completely the complications of the situation in Gaza Strip. The political and humanitarian conditions on the ground are very complicated, and we fully realise that the Israeli factor as well as the absence of national conciliation and the geographic status affect the situation in the Strip.

My first reaction as Commissioner-General is that the situation in Gaza is not acceptable. There are one and a half million people, including one million refugees registered with UNRWA, paying the cost of these political complications. The most important factor of these complications is the closure imposed by the occupation authority. UNRWA has called and is calling for lifting the blockade, and it realises that these calls were not met, but we were at least hoping to allow the entry of building materials to reconstruct what was damaged during the war and the years that preceded the war. However, even this simple humanitarian demand was not met.

The closure imposed on the Gaza Strip is unacceptable, and the skimping policy by allowing one bag of flour here or one item there, and which comes only following a long and complicated coordination, is not acceptable, and in no way can one and a half million people live like this.
Moreover, although the policy of tunnels is contributing to alleviating the effect of closures imposed by Israel, this “illegal economy” destroys stability and security in the region.

As for the other part of the question, the Agency continues to exert efforts to break the blockade; and I hereby, through your newspaper, call upon Israelis to respond to our request for allowing the entry of items due to their importance and vital significance for Gazans.

Despite this bleak image, the Agency continues to provide its ordinary services such as the provision of education at 200 schools for some 200,000 children, the emergency services and creating temporary jobs. However, what concerns me is the fact that if the situation continued as it is now, and the policy of blockade and closure remains, the Agency then would be obliged to use financial resources allocated for general services and mobilise it for emergency services. This would increase the emergency services and Gaza will then receive emergency humanitarian assistance for education and children. This would lead Gaza backward rather than moving forward.

Q: UNRWA always stresses the necessity to open crossings, not only for humanitarian assistance but also to lift all restriction for Gaza reconstruction. However, until concerned countries and the Quartet members exert the needed pressure on Israel, the work of UNRWA in the field of reconstruction remains suspended. The question is: Does the Egyptian decision to construct a barrier at the Egyptian borders with Gaza exacerbate the already difficult humanitarian situation? What is your attitude towards this?

A: This is a good question. However, in order for things to be clear, the main responsibility for entering assistance of all kinds into the Gaza Strip and for allowing its residents to move with freedom lies in the shoulders of the occupying power, which is Israel in our case. It is Israel that should bear the responsibility and that should open all the crossings. Therefore, your question is valid, and any walls that are erected around Gaza wouldn’t help and wouldn’t bring hope for Gaza residents. Within this view, an appeal should be raised for everyone with the message that these walls will not contribute to improving the living conditions of people in Gaza.

Of course, the Egyptian party has offered a lot to alleviate this blockade, and even allowed UNRWA to use Rafah crossing for the movement of its Palestinian staff members, but the case remains that there are no need to construct additional walls as this would prevent UNRWA from carrying out its humanitarian work and would not fulfil its obligations because everyone will be living inside walls.

This Egyptian wall has come in response to the growing number of tunnels that are constructed illegally. If the previous agreement concerning crossings, which was overseen by the former US Secretary of State Rice, was implemented then the need for Gazan people to build tunnels would never rise.

Q: Don’t you believe that requesting donor countries to raise their contributions in support of your ordinary and emergency operations is strengthening the collective Israeli punishment for Palestinians and enhancing the Israeli control over the occupied territories?

A: I would like to answer your question with another question: what would happen if UNRWA failed and did not provide these services? Of course, the occupation will continue and will be strengthened, and instead the children learn they will become illiterate. Therefore, if the Agency withdraws, the occupation status will become more difficult and the Israeli authorities will not provide these services in lieu of UNRWA and at the same time it will deprive the Agency from carrying out its work. The most important answer is that the Agency, through providing these emergency and ordinary humanitarian services, is using this work to convey important messages, the first of which is demanding the occupying authority not to place hindrances and obstacles in front of UNRWA’s work. This is an essential demand. The second message is reminding donor countries of the necessity to support UNRWA because the issue of Palestine refugees is an international one and that they have responsibility towards it as members of the UN. The other issue is a reminder for both Palestinians and Israelis that the Agency exists and will finish only once the issue of refugees is solved and once these countries and parties stand up before its responsibilities and provide a just and comprehensive solution for the refugee issue according to the desires of refugees themselves.

Q: Don’t you think that accepting a financial compensation of no more than $10m from Israel for bombarding UNRWA installations during the recent war on Gaza without international or legal accountability is considered as weakening the stand of the UN and exempting Israel from great international quagmire? What about compensating those who were killed by the Israeli army? And what is the opinion of UNRWA towards the decision to “reprimand” two senior officers who allowed the bombarding of UNRWA installations?

A: Accepting this amount does not weaken the status of the UN. Historically, UNRWA used to request immediately for compensation against any damage caused by the Israeli party during the past years, and to demand the initiation of an investigation to identify the persons behind that act. History says as well that UNRWA never received any compensation or any results for any investigation she demanded for, and this is the first time in which UNRWA receives compensation. However, this compensation was attached with a not guilty plea, and this is an important issue. UNRWA will remain in its attitude that the Israeli authorities should bear responsibility for this damage. Nevertheless, approving the principle of compensation is a good start and a first step, but we still insist on investigation.

As regarding the reprimand for the two senior officers, I have no comment on that as the image is vague. But the issue is that there was an investigation carried by international investigator (Goldstone), and the General Assembly and the UN Secretary-General are still working on this subject and they asked for the reaction of all concerned parties.

Q: The former Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd had a supporting and firm stand in support for the residents of Sheikh Jarrah who were forcibly expelled from their homes. She also made some bold statements regarding the issues of settlements, violence of settlers, arbitrary actions imposed on the West Bank residents and the restrictions on movement and travel. As a Commissioner-General of UNRWA with Jerusalem being your permanent office, what is your opinion towards the Israeli actions in Jerusalem and West Bank?

A: The attitudes of the former Commissioner-General are the same as the attitudes of the present Commissioner-General, and they are the attitudes of UNRWA itself. Nothing has changed. When I was a Deputy Commissioner-General, I was concerned over the difficulties that face Palestinians and refugees in all aspects of life, including the denial of selling, buying, access to hospitals, movement and the freedom of worship. What is happening near the Agency’s offices in Sheikh Jarrah, represented in the denial of the right of residency from Palestinian people, and before our bare eyes is a scandal. Therefore, the Agency will keep its role in advocating for these issues and in working for its sake, exactly as we did previously.

Q: Back to your financial situation. Until when you will appeal for support, and what are the permanent solutions for the financial crisis? Did the internal reform in the Agency help to attract more funding? And it is always the question: Are the Arab countries and the League of Arab States playing their role in supporting Palestine refugees through UNRWA?

A: Yes. If there was no internal reform in the Agency, the financial situation would be very bad. The internal reform enabled our demands for these contributions to be utilised in a more efficient and effective manner. Moreover, the OD allowed us to provide better services for the refugees.

As regards Arabian support, the true answer is not diplomatic, as the Arab contributions were historically generous to UNRWA. Moreover, there is an increase in generous contributions to UNRWA, especially in the recent years. We even have a specialised office for this issue and we have a person who follows the portfolio of Arab donations. He is a capable former diplomat and has an effective role in this issue.

I do wish that Arab countries allocate more budgets to support the general fund of the Agency. We always are ready to work together in order to clarify why supporting the general fund has the same significance, if not more, as supporting emergency services. We do highly appreciate the desire of Arab countries to offer contributions directly. There is a need to allocate funds for the general fund of the Agency, and we are optimistic towards this matter. There is an Advisory Commission that oversees the work of the Agency, and as an indication of the increased role of Arab countries in the Agency’s work, this Commission is headed by an Egyptian diplomat, and his deputy is a Saudi diplomat as well. This is evidence of the increase of the Arab role in supporting the Agency.

I will meet with the President of the League of Arab States Mr Amro Mousa on Sunday (today), and will discuss with him this matter, because Mousa had a significant role in urging the Arab countries to raise their contributions for the Agency’s general fund.

Q: I have a question about Palestinians in Lebanon. Are you optimistic regarding the recent official Lebanese attitude to improve the conditions of refugees in the country as well as the debate that is taking place about granting them permission to work and to obtain properties? Taking into consideration the sensitivity of the internal situation in Lebanon, how do you see the future of this issue? And what is your role within this context with the Lebanese government? Moreover, what are the recent developments concerning the reconstruction of the damaged Nahr el-Bared camp?

A: In fact, UNRWA is able nowadays to discuss with the Lebanese in an openly and responsible manner regarding the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon. This makes me, as Commissioner-General, cautiously optimistic regarding the recent developments. This cautious optimism is a result of an effort exerted by the Lebanese party, beginning from the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to Seniora and then Sa’ad Hariri. This work from consecutive governments has made it possible for this optimistic ground and for the space for dialogue.

The internal Lebanese situation is sensitive and fragile. Any unmeasured action would have consequences. However, indicators are encouraging, and the work on improving camps has started, and we were not able to talk about this issue in the past. More important is that there is a positive move in the ability of Palestine refugees to work, as the package of refugee rights is improving, including as well the lift on the ban of some restricted jobs.

As regarding Nahr el-Bared camp, the issue is very complex; the current obstacle is not financial, and due to the efforts of the government and army in Lebanon, all obstacles were defeated. Soon, the challenge will be that we will be asking for more financial contributions to reconstruct the camp. This is the main challenge that we face after we succeeded in tackling all the obstacles that were facing that project.

Q: Is there any final word that you wish to convey to Palestine refugees?

A: Perhaps the first and essential message that I would start my work with is that, under the prevailing difficult situations and with the absence of any positive horizons to the Palestinians, I am personally, as well as all other staff members in the Agency, committed to make sure that the international community will not forget 4.7 million Palestine refugees, and that the Agency will remain to offer assistance. Losing hope is the end of the journey for Palestine refugees who do not wish to face that end. Therefore, this message could be the basic one I would convey as Commissioner-General through Al-Quds newspaper. 

Two UNRWA students from Gaza enjoy recess in their first day of school. © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Rushdi Al-Saraj
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