Challenges and Opportunities for Palestine Refugees: A Critical Perspective

03 December 2010

Commissioner-General Keynote Speech
Inauguration of the European Centre for Palestine Studies

3 December 2010
University of Exeter, UK

Deputy Vice-Chancellor,
Ladies and gentlemen:

Commissioner-General Filippo GrandiI thank Exeter University, the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, and the European Centre for Palestine Studies for the invitation to give the keynote address on this special occasion.  The honour belongs not to us personally or to UNRWA, the agency I head, but to the Palestine refugees UNRWA serves in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and in the occupied Palestinian territory - the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. 

I offer warm congratulations to you all, particularly to Professors Ilan Pappé and Ghada Karmi for their vision, courage and determination in bringing into being “the first university-linked Palestine Studies centre in the Western world”.  Let me assure you that we at UNRWA, as practitioners, feel a sense of kinship – of complementarity – with the academic work done and planned by the Centre, and we look forward to developing a partnership with you in very concrete ways.  I therefore extend special thanks to Mick Dumper for his sterling contributions and his efforts in bringing us to Exeter to join you all on this occasion.

The significance of this Centre and the huge potential of its work are best appreciated against the backdrop of the multiple layers of complex conditions – conditions of conflict, occupation and forced displacement - that “Palestine” and “Palestinian” have come to represent.  Claiming its foundations in ancient roots and portrayed by both sides in existential terms, the conflict has acquired an aura of intractability that hardens with each passing year and threatens to be self-fulfilling. 

Dispossession and exile unfortunately continue to be among the underlying realities of “Palestine”.  The 4.7 million refugees currently registered with UNRWA account for only a portion of Palestinians across the Middle East and globally, whose personal narrative includes the experience of forced displacement. 

Refugees share a sense of profound loss which – as with the displaced elsewhere - emanates from the generational awareness of having been compelled to flee from the place they have for centuries called “home”. That sense is reinforced by the lingering insecurity of perennial limbo, now in its sixty-second year. The refugees have no State entity that embraces them, by right, as its sons and daughters – a State which they, in turn, can call their own and regard as the place where their destiny as a proud people may be fulfilled. 

Palestine, the country Palestinians claim as their original, irreplaceable homeland, no longer exists as it did before, even though it lives and will continue to be sustained by an indelible, collective memory.  At the same time, the Palestine of the future remains for the time being an abstraction, much desired, yet shrouded in uncertainties and as elusive as ever.

As if dispossession and exile were not heavy burdens, the occupation since 1967 of Palestinian land serves as a further dimension of anguish for refugees in Gaza and the West Bank.  The occupation is fundamentally irreconcilable with the aspiration of Palestinian statehood. It entrenches injustice, cementing a popular conviction of historic grievance and serving as a ready pretext for militant responses, which, in turn, spur on the conflict.

The Palestinian condition is thus fraught not only in the material reality of human insecurity, occupation and dispossession. It is burdened also in the tenor and character of the political, social and legal discourse between the parties to the conflict and their many allies.  All too often, the language of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the language of visceral denial or exclusion of the other, effectively obscuring the rational and objective. Rigid or ideologically subjective approaches appear so often to seize the day, tending to drown out the voices of reason.  In the unrelenting heat of the conflict, the clamour of the occupation, and the uncertainties of Palestinian exile, truth, justice and humanity struggle to be heard, let alone to be embraced. 

These features of the Palestinian condition are most graphically illustrated in the occupied Palestinian territory, but felt in places beyond. Let me give you some examples.

In the West Bank, there are signs of continuing economic growth in 2010, although for many Palestinians and Palestine refugees a variety of factors keep the material benefits of economic revival out of reach.  These factors include, most pertinently, the construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, the barrier separating Palestinians from Palestinians, and the associated regime of internal movement restrictions.  This is a regime difficult to imagine for those who have not experienced it – a regime characterized by the most profound injustices, the harshest discrimination, and – at times – the most tragic absurdity.

For instance, I recently visited the village of Biddu, which sits northwest of Jerusalem close to the 1967 Green Line, contained behind the barrier and surrounded by ever-growing settlements. There, I met with a community of farmers who can reach their land only through a network of gated access points designed to segregate them from contact with Israeli settlers. 

Whether or not the gates are open is entirely at the discretion of the Israeli authorities. The gates are shut more often than not and the entire area is almost completely closed. You can reach it only through a tunnel road which connects it to the rest of the West Bank. Despite the fact that most of Biddu’s residents are Jerusalem ID holders, they can reach their means of livelihood only by traveling kilometers out of the way through Israeli-manned checkpoints. When we recall that around 97% of the inhabitants of Biddu fled from the town of Al-Lod during the conflict of 1948, we would not be surprised if those experiencing the travesties of today would reflect on how little has changed over six decades of suffering.

I could describe many such examples.  Settlement construction exacerbates tensions and cycles of conflict, including in East Jerusalem, where evictions, demolitions and revocations of residency permits are occurring on a regular basis. My own residence in Sheikh Jarrah is adjacent to houses from which Palestinians were evicted and which are now occupied by settlers. It is also close to the neighbourhood in Silwan where more evictions are planned, in full view of the diplomatic community and the many international organisations working in East Jerusalem. One feels powerless in the face of these events. 

UNRWA implements a crisis intervention protocol under which we offer support, including legal advice, psycho-social counseling, housing and cash assistance, to refugees whose homes have been bulldozed, to those injured in the course of demolitions, and to those whose property has been damaged in military raids or settler violence. But clearly, our assistance is no remedy for the fear and sense of persecution these Palestinians experience.

A rise in settler violence against Palestinians is another cause for grave concern. These attacks take various forms, including physical assaults, many of them lethal; destruction of property; burning of olive groves and other crops; and the deliberate pollution of Palestinian land with sewage. This year alone, there have been some 433 such incidents – a 13 percent increase from last year.

The Israeli authorities have informed us to expect from next year a further tightening of access restrictions between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This will affect the work of UNRWA and other agencies, but it is the Palestinians who will, as always, pay the highest price in human and material terms, as the bonds of commerce, residence, kinship and culture that have been nurtured over the centuries are placed under unbearable strain. Many refugees – 70,000 in East Jerusalem alone – will be once again among those affected by this perpetuation of injustice.

In Gaza, at the other end of the occupied Palestinian territory, Palestinians, of whom two-thirds are refugees, are isolated, confined in enforced segregation from the rest of the world. Few, if any, can avoid the effects of paralyzed public services, a collapsed formal economy, and the physical and psychological threats from the conflict and from the three-year old blockade.

The recent easing of restrictions is, of course, a welcome step that we hope will lead to an end to the blockade. The boost to the formal economy that the easing has brought has been limited to a few sectors, though, and falls short of the free flow of goods and people envisaged in the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access.  In the construction sector, for example, only 7% of UNRWA’s rehabilitation and reconstruction plans have recently been approved, including 400 of the more than 10,000 homes urgently needed to ensure that the thousands whose houses were destroyed in last year’s war will not have to suffer the hardship of living in tents or other temporary accommodation this winter; and six of the 100 schools that need to be built to meet the demand for primary education of refugee children. Their number in Gaza alone grows by 8,000 every year and we simply have no place in our schools to accommodate all of them. This means that we will add the failure to fulfill their right to education to the many critical privations which thousands of children have to endure on account of the overarching failure – that of political leaders to resolve the conflict.

We see the effects of Gaza’s ordeal up close and what we observe leaves no doubt that the blockade has been the direct cause of widespread poverty and social decline.  A sizeable proportion of Gazans live below the poverty line, some forty percent are unemployed, and eighty percent rely on food handouts.  Just last month, we measured an abject poverty rate of more than 30% among pupils in UNRWA schools.  Outrageous as this may seem, it is a fact that these children come to their classrooms hungry, relying partly, often largely, on the modest snacks we provide in our schools.  And the statistics do not tell the whole story of a people whose dreams and hopes seem to have been deferred to an uncertain future time.

I must point out that although the occupied Palestinian territory is where refugees face their sternest tests, those living in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan are not necessarily spared. In Lebanon, the refugees have experienced recurrent armed conflict and multiple displacements, most recently in 2007, and the specter of violence continues to stalk the twelve refugee camps. 

And refugees in all our fields are – also and especially - affected when, as a result of UNRWA’s chronic financial crises, we are unable to offer services of acceptable quality.  Years of underfunding have left many of our schools, clinics and other facilities in a dilapidated state.  Across the region, the poor standard of refugee homes and, in many instances, the living conditions in refugee camps, leave much to be desired. 

A worrying proportion of refugees remain afflicted by deep poverty and unemployment, struggling to make ends meet in the tough economic climate of the last several years. Thousands of children are traumatized, deeply scarred by the horrors of armed conflict. The incidence of food insecurity, especially in Gaza and the West Bank, is worrying, and the scourge of impoverishment is a debilitating presence in many young refugee lives. Children below the age of 16 comprise 31 per cent of registered refugees. Those 25 years old or younger make up 49 percent of the refugee community.  They have high expectations of UNRWA and the international community, and rightly so.  We must make a special effort – already long overdue - to help them stake their claim to the future of the region. 

I have offered these sketches to share our view of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory and to give you a feel of the multiple dimensions of distress that many Palestinians – in particular the refugees - face. The depth and entrenchment of human rights violations is unique, and so too, is the combination of armed conflict, exile, dispossession and occupation that are, unfortunately, the story of the lives of many Palestine refugees.  Though it is impossible to convey in words the full extent of those conditions, I thought it useful to show, even in summary form, that the Palestinian refugee context, which the work of this Centre must address, and to which UNRWA stands witness, is as complex and demanding as can be. 

For those who may not be familiar with UNRWA, I will now take a few minutes to outline our work, highlighting our emphasis on human development as the center of our Agency’s mission.  This mission is essential to mitigating the harms of protracted conflict and dispossession, and to create at least some opportunities in the lives of those who continue to face the hardships of a troubled exile. 

“Opportunities” is the key word.  We have chosen to describe our mission in terms of human development – that is, to provide the support and protection that help Palestine refugees to lead healthy lives, to acquire knowledge and skills, to be socio-economically productive, and to enjoy human rights to the extent possible. We achieve this through the provision of direct services, a unique model in the international system.

UNRWA’s operations are on a significant scale, with some 29,000 staff working in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and in the occupied Palestinian territory.  The Agency’s teachers and other education staff, manage 691 schools for approximately half a million refugee children.  Our doctors, nurses and other medical staff conduct hundreds of thousands of patient consultations in 137 health centres, while supporting preventive health care activities and refugees’ access to more comprehensive health services in hospitals around the region.

Our relief and social services programmes helps alleviate hardship for those rendered vulnerable by poverty, while working with community-based organizations in addressing special needs. In the 58 refugee camps in the region, where about a third of the refugee population resides, UNRWA builds and maintains homes and the facilities and infrastructure required to safeguard living standards.  The Agency also manages a microfinance programme, providing credit and related financial services to refugees, including special products designed with the particular needs and interests of women in mind.  Drawing on the extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit of Palestinians, our micro-finance services contribute to strengthening coping mechanisms and help mitigate poverty. 

In tandem with our regular programmes, UNRWA maintains an emergency response capability in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon.  This function has been all too often in the forefront of the effort to save lives, ensuring protection and assistance to the displaced and others at risk, and otherwise helping to moderate the impact of armed conflict on refugees and other civilians. 
Ladies and gentlemen:

The point for emphasis is not so much the scope and presence of UNRWA’s operations in the Middle East, although those elements are useful aids in understanding UNRWA’s overall impact and the magnitude of a little-known challenge.  Rather, we gain a deeper appreciation of the refugee question when we consider the underlying premises and the operational values that underpin the Agency’s programmes and services.   Allow me to speak briefly to this aspect. 

The Agency’s work rests on the UN Charter precept of the inherent dignity and worth of the human person, regardless of race, gender or religion.  In the refugee milieu, including – and I stress, including -  in the Palestinian context, this universal principle is at the core of the international obligation of States to work together, and with refugee agencies, to ensure protection and assistance to people threatened by persecution or other causes of involuntary displacement. 

The inherent dignity and worth of each Palestinian and Palestine refugee serves as UNRWA’s guide and our constant point of reference. This leads us to place the interests of the refugee – as an individual with rights under international law - at the heart of our services and advocacy work.  But amidst the suffering, it also accounts for our efforts to recognize, value, and draw upon the positive attributes that Palestinians and Palestine refugees bring with them: their passion for knowledge and learning; the high social value Palestinians ascribe to professional and intellectual achievements; the richness of Palestinian culture; the extraordinary entrepreneurship; and, above all, the patient fortitude and strong resilience of the Palestinian spirit. 

With Palestinian dignity and worth as our compass, we see therefore our primary role as helping create opportunities for refugees that prepare and empower them for self-improvement and self-reliance.  Most of all, as with all our programmes, our investment in primary education for refugee children expresses our belief in helping refugees realize their potential. Time and time again, we see proof that this belief is justified. 

Consider the three UNRWA students from the West Bank who received a prize from Intel for inventing a unique electronic cane for the blind; or the UNRWA teachers in Gaza who give up their holidays every year to teach remedial classes in the summer; or the proud determination with which thousands of small refugee entrepreneurs, from Aleppo in northern Syria to Rafah in southern Gaza, are repaying their microfinance loans and expanding their businesses. These are some of the many examples of the refugees’ commitment to improving their lives.

We have long realized that we can better respond to refugees’ yearning for socio-economic independence if we remain open to diverse perspectives, coupling this with innovative, more efficient ways of working.  This has led us towards seeking more meaningful participation of refugees in programming.  A good example is UNRWA’s human rights curriculum in Gaza, which has been designed around interactive learning to promote norms of tolerance, debate and inclusion. Developed with the active participation of local educators and Gaza’s human rights experts, among others, and in consultation with families and the community, it epitomizes the role of refugees in shaping and enriching aspects of the pedagogy in UNRWA schools.

The student councils being organized in our schools are reinforcing these opportunities for participation, with a clear benefit to refugee girls who are the most active in these fora. In Neirab camp in Aleppo, Syria, thousands of families are involved in designing and implementing a multimillion dollar reconstruction project which will considerably improve their living conditions.  With over 1,200 consultations with refugees each year, the project sets a high standard for community participation.  And in Lebanon, the displaced refugee community played an important role in the complex process of preparing the master plan for the reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared camp. UNRWA therefore plays a significant role in the lives of Palestine refugees.

This brings me to the questions around the inherent limits of our mandate and the critical responsibilities that rest beyond our control.  It is an inescapable fact that humanitarian and human development work, including in advocacy and protection interventions, cannot be – and were never meant to be - substitutes for decisive, courageous and just political action. 

The multilateral system of today ideally requires various functional roles to work in synergy. Humanitarian and development roles must complement political roles, with success in each one sector reinforcing the accomplishment of the other’s goals. Particularly in crisis situations, including the context of armed conflict, this harmonization of effort is needed to deliver the full protection of international law and human rights for refugees and other affected civilians, while ensuring that the causes of upheaval are tackled and peacefully brought to an end.  The question is the degree to which this ideal applies to our region.

The experience of Palestinians and Palestine refugees is a stark instance of asymmetry in the extent to which the humanitarian and political responsibilities are actually performed. For sixty-two years, the humanitarian and human development sectors have shown some appreciable results. By contrast, there has been little progress in addressing by political means the root causes of the conflict or the multiple layers of harm being caused to Palestinians. The absence of progress on the political front has helped perpetuate the myth, at least in some quarters, that a solution by military means is possible. And this is also testing the stamina of humanitarian agencies and of donors, detracting from the full effectiveness of our work and frustrating our ability to make a real difference to the dignity and well-being of refugees. 

At the core of this frustration is an awareness of the immense wealth of human capital this region holds – as indicated, for example, by high rates of literacy and professional skills, as well as the advantages of the geography and natural resources of the Middle East. Given these endowments, significant prosperity could have been achieved if more favourable political circumstances had allowed investments to be channeled to development, rather than to addressing the repercussions of armed conflict and emergency situations as has been the case for the past sixty-two years. 

And so we find ourselves at a time when many believe that the prospects for peace have never been bleaker.  However, UNRWA, for its part, cannot succumb to despair. We will continue to exhort political actors to remain active in the search for a negotiated resolution of this conflict and to remove the barriers to achieving the opportunities we seek to create for refugees. 

In this spirit of stubborn hope, and on the understanding that our mandate demands that we take a long-term view of refugee interests as set out in UN resolutions and international law instruments, UNRWA is looking at ways to contribute to discussions regarding how best, within any future peace framework, the Agency could contribute to promoting the best interests of refugees. In pursuing this mandated interest, we always bear in mind, of course, that the responsibility to resolve peacefully the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to address the refugee issue lies with States and political actors.

Allow me to mention four areas around which UNRWA’s thinking about these matters is evolving.  These are lines of inquiry which can contribute to the international community’s efforts to ensure that the rights and entitlements of Palestine refugees are protected and advanced.  Each of them points to opportunities to be grasped to raise the level of engagement with refugees and better secure their protection. 

The first of these areas I would like to mention is the unique nature of refugees and their interests.  We take the view that there is a need to recognize in more precise ways the distinctiveness of the refugee question among the several “permanent status” issues. For one thing, the extensive presence of Palestine refugees across the region means that the issues of concern to them transcend the occupied Palestinian territory and affect the interests of a range of States. Refugee communities are significant players on account of their size and geographical distribution across a volatile region. They hold a substantial stake in the Israeli-Palestinian future and in the content of a just and lasting solution. 

The specificity of refugee interests relates also to the implications of the future emergence of a Palestinian state. The questions worth clarifying, perhaps with the help of experts and academic institutions, include the following: what implications will this have for refugees? What impact will it have on Palestinian statelessness in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Diaspora? How can we ensure that the principles of voluntariness and choice will be upheld? And, what impact would the situation have on UNRWA’s status and operations in the West Bank and Gaza?  And, indeed, what future do we envisage for UNRWA itself?

Second, Palestine refugees are the human face of the roots of this conflict, and, one should add, they are also an aggrieved party that is thirsty for redress. Their humanity brings into play obligations of human rights and other legal entitlements, which must be given their proper place in the search for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.  Giving recognition to these human rights dimensions could help guide political actors to design processes that are appropriately inclusive and consultative, that account for regional interests, and that are correctly grounded in international law. 

Third, we must acknowledge that refugees are a constituency for peace, and that the refugee issue must be comprehensively addressed earlier rather than later in a peace process.  As refugees emerged from - and exist as a consequence of - the 1948 conflict, it stands to reason that addressing their plight is one of the prerequisites for resolving the conflict. The extent to which refugee rights and choices are addressed in a negotiated settlement will affect the credibility of the settlement itself.

Allow me to insert here a brief personal note. When I say I believe that it is vital to give refugees a voice, and to acknowledge the stake they hold in their own future, I do so from 27 years of humanitarian experience including in Sudan, in the conflict- and drought-ridden 80s; in Iraq after the first Gulf war; in the Great Lakes during and in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide; and in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime.  Any search for peace which chooses to exclude refugees, risks foregoing refugees’ consent and cooperation. The result is passive rejection at best, and at worst, a situation of high risk in which the power of the refugee constituency is expressed in opposition against a dispensation in which they do not see their interests reflected.
In the inevitably difficult discussions which will hopefully lead to the end of the conflict and, as part thereof, a just solution to their plight – we must ensure that refugees are able to contribute constructively to the efforts to find solutions. Including them will ensure that the process will benefit from the wealth of insights they have to offer.  I will repeat this because it is important: Palestine refugees are a reality whose role and significance genuine peacemaking efforts can no longer afford to neglect. 

Fourth, we must reflect on what roles UNRWA itself might play in contributing to possibilities of peace and to any future dispensation. The most immediate contribution to peace-building is made through the range of emergency and human development services we currently offer, helping to mitigate refugees’ marginalization, to promote harmony between refugee and non-refugee communities, and to support self-reliance among refugees. These measures contribute to calm, and also to strengthening the refugees’ ability to exercise informed choices.

Looking further ahead to the preparations for, and implementation of a future solution, we could offer our knowledge of the conditions Palestine refugees face and thus lend substance and credibility to a search for a just and lasting solution. In playing a facilitative and advisory role, we would draw on our registration records: over 17 million historical family documents are digitized, in addition to data on refugee movements and demographic changes in the population. We would also utilize the human capital represented by our staff, as well as the physical legacy of UNRWA’s schools, clinics and infrastructure in and around the camps. These assets are invaluable for anticipating future scenarios and aiding the design of comprehensive remedies to the situation of refugees.

We are still at a very early stage of exploring these and other interrelated questions pertaining to the present and future of Palestine refugees.  We are conscious of the profoundness and complexity of the issues raised by these lines of inquiry. Therefore, far from claiming to possess the answers, we are open to seeking partnerships with colleagues in the academic and policy-development fields, to help us illuminate the issues and add substance to our efforts to protect the long-term interests of Palestine refugees. 

Ladies and gentlemen:  

The condition of Palestinians and Palestine refugees is steeped in crisis and replete with myriad dangers on all fronts.  And yet, this exceedingly fraught condition also harbours opportunities - opportunities to erase the deficit of compassion for the Palestinians in their plight, to remedy the injustices of exile and dispossession, and to help secure for them a future of dignity and prosperity that is theirs by right.  Let us find the courage to abstain from the indifference which all too often characterizes our approach to Palestinian issues, and in so doing, let us begin to see more clearly the opportunities that are waiting to be seized. 

The establishment of the European Centre for Palestine Studies is an occasion of great importance for academic communities in Europe and beyond, and for all who value products of academic excellence relating to the Middle East.  We must bear in mind that it is of significance also for the Palestinians and Palestine refugees whose challenges I have portrayed in outline – challenges that are threaded in complex, multiple layers, and which hold a wealth of material worthy of interest to a range of academic disciplines.

I believe that this centre is well placed to help untangle these threads and participate in the effort to address the issues I have alluded to, while promoting universal understanding of the Palestinian condition.  Palestine is a subject on which research, teaching and academic inquiry can be directly applied to policy development and political action.  We are confident that the Centre will become a force for illuminating with intellectual clarity the tasking questions that will continue to frame Palestinian discourse for some time to come.  And we are certain that as the Centre thrives in research, in writing and in teaching, it will also grow in the influence it brings to bear on the approach of States and political actors to Palestinians and Palestine refugees.

When I consider the profile of the founders of this Centre, the quality of the faculty, and the pedigree of the University of Exeter, I feel assured that the work done here has the best possible chance of achieving the goal that it must have – to make a real difference to Palestine refugees and to Palestinians at large.

Background Information: 

UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA programme budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s programme budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals. UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5.4 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA across its five fields of operation. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.