Choices Made, Choices Denied

20 March 2014
Choices Made, Choices Denied
Choices Made, Choices Denied: A perspective on the question of Palestine refugees
Lecture by Filippo Grandi, UNRWA Commissioner-General, at Birzeit University
Ladies and Gentlemen, 
Students, faculty, members of the diplomatic corps, 
Dr Fayyad, colleagues, and honourable guests,

Thank you for being here today, and for your interest in the question of Palestine refugees and in the work of UNRWA. I wish to thank you in particular, Dr Khalil Hindi, the President of Birzeit University, whose presence and very kind words of introduction are truly a great honour for me. Very special thanks also to Dr Asem Khalil, the Dean of the Faculty of Law and Public Administration, for being a friend to UNRWA and sharing his wisdom with us throughout the years.

As was mentioned, in just over a week, after eight and half years, I will leave UNRWA. This, I hope you understand, will be a very emotional farewell. I have always wished to deliver my last public address as Commissioner-General here, at Birzeit University,  not only an eminent center of Palestinian learning and culture, but also a symbol of the intellectual vitality of the Palestinian nation. I feel privileged and proud that it is happening today.

Birzeit is also a visible sign of the choice made after the Nakba to pursue education and knowledge in support of the long and still unfinished quest of the Palestinian people for justice. The outcome of that choice has been profound, as each new generation of Palestinians has, against the odds, proven its resourcefulness and drive through remarkable educational achievements.  And no doubt, this pursuit has contributed to the Palestinian quality that I have always most respected and admired: sumud, steadfastness. 

The circumstances giving rise to these achievements, however, should give us pause for thought: because if Palestinians – and particularly Palestinian refugees – have chosen to embrace education as one of the ways to mitigate their predicament, it is because other choices have been denied to them, at almost every turn and in almost every context, since their expulsion in 1948. 

Choices made, and, more than often than not, choices denied: it is a theme running through their history as refugees, with all its manifestations that continue into 2014.  It is a theme I will explore today. Allow me first, however, to turn to some of those manifestations, past and present; and allow me also, in my last few days at UNRWA, to do so from the perspective of the institution which I have been proud to serve.

In a region plagued by wars, some stemming indeed from the events of 1948, Palestinians have been a people living in crisis. Stateless, dispersed, occupied, caught in conflict; in the many permutations of their plight, there has always been the denial of rights, security, needs and wants; and for those living it, this reality becomes an unchanging norm. 

In my own work, I do not have to look far for confirmation of this reality: all five areas of operations of UNRWA are currently affected by crisis. Against the backdrop of the current political effort, the conditions in the region keep recreating the same legacy of expulsion and exclusion. Any new peace framework will find difficulty addressing it. In some way, however, it will have to do so. 

I joined UNRWA in 2005, the year Israel implemented the so-called unilateral disengagement from Gaza, and just a few months before Palestinians voted in record numbers for presidential and parliamentary elections.   

Of course, like most people in my generation, I had heard about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all my life. When I was 10 years old, my father gave me a small transistor radio and I remember listening with baited breath, from the safety of my home in Italy, to the frantic reports about the 1967 war, which I recounted to my younger siblings and my friends in school as if I had been there. Like many others, I already thought that to have followed this conflict from afar meant to know it. But I knew little. 


It was only when I arrived in Palestine that I started learning about the depth and complexity of the conflict. And it was one aspect of it - one of which, up to that moment, I had only a very abstract idea - that struck me most. It was the extent, gravity and seeming irrevocability of the injustice which the Palestinians had suffered, and continued to suffer. But - contrary to the perception that Palestinians passively accept their fate - there was also, then, an under-current of change, of civic and political ferment not seen since the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of 1994 and the elections in 1996. True, there was skepticism about the unilateral disengagement. True, the optimism of the Oslo years had vanished. However, there was at least a sense that choices, to a certain extent, were still possible; and that (for example) through democratic elections, Palestinians could choose their own political future. A new consensus was emerging amongst Palestinians about the need for rehabilitation to address the effects of conflict, for new approaches to achieving socio-economic development, and for national unity to stem the growing factionalization of Palestinian society and political life - a threat from within to the struggle for self-determination. 

Alas, it did not last. The experiment in multiparty democracy and the possibility of choices collapsed under the weight of occupation and external interference, and that of political and economic pressure. The consequence, in the Palestinian body politic, was a protracted fracture - accompanied, for a while at least, by dangerous factional violence. That fracture, regrettably, continues to this day. 

Conditions then worsened. The deep division in Palestinian ranks raised fears that the national project would collapse, yet a deeply disaffected civil society, and the wider public, chose not to play their time-honoured role to forge unity across factional lines. While one can question their choice, or lack thereof, one cannot blame the Palestinian grassroots for it. They had been a source of participatory spirit and of the will to change in times past, but sensed from experience that the forces arrayed against them, military and political, would not entertain any challenges, and would not leave them any space. Ordinary people had to contend with the multiple difficulties created by the occupation, by poverty, often by violence. They were overwhelmed by those problems. They had to save the valuable energy of their resilience to address them, day after day.

When I arrived in Palestine, I could also observe first-hand the deep and physical scars of conflict, which were everywhere, much more than I ever thought. And this is when another feature of this conflict struck me: the continuous assumption - in good faith, or not - that although political progress was difficult, at least economic development should be pursued. Please do not get me wrong: I do not think that any Palestinian should be deprived of any opportunity for a better life, whatever the political context; and that is why I have worked for UNRWA and I support and respect the work done by many determined and courageous Palestinians to build institutions and livelihoods, with the support of the United Nations and the international community. But what we can do, under the prevailing regime of occupation, is not equal to a durable solution. It simply cannot be. There is no scope for the process of sustainable  development – which, we should remind ourselves, is equally a right, endowed by international law – under conditions that continually reproduce de-development. These conditions will continue to block it. The perversion of this situation is that the illegal, colonial enterprise of Israeli settlements flourishes; and meanwhile, Palestinian entrepreneurs, firms and businesses are deprived systematically of their rightful access to land, water, transport, and markets. These conditions are a lethal threat to the Palestinian economy, and to Palestinian livelihoods.

In my years at UNRWA, I have heard numerous interlocutors define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or more specifically the impasse to negotiations, as a status quo. This gives the impression of a static situation, and of course, it is not. The alleged status quo is in fact constantly spiraling downwards, and every day that passes erodes the norms and boundaries of international and human rights law that are needed to support a just solution of the conflict. 

For Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, foreign military rule cuts into all spheres of life, posing an existential threat to society. And it is, again, a matter of choices denied: the choices made by individuals that define the self, that allow them and their families to affirm their autonomy and basic preferences in life, which in most other contexts are taken for granted – place of residence, course of study, pursuit of work, relations with family – these daily choices are, for millions of Palestinians, completely restricted by Israel’s vast apparatus of occupation, land expropriation, and relentless growth of settlements, as of course you all know. And all this, in full view of the world.

In the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million people of whom over one million are refugees, the blockade imposed by Israel is by now longer than the historic blockades of the last century: Leningrad, Berlin, Sarajevo. Following the recent closure of the border with Egypt and almost all of the tunnels underneath it, and with the continuing blockade by Israel’s navy of the Strip’s Mediterranean waters, Gaza’s access to the world is cut off in every direction. The anguish and the collective sense of debasement by now pervading the Gaza Strip are omnipresent, even in conversations with our senior staff, revealing that all sectors of society are affected. And the most affected are the young, and especially the children under 18, who constitute half of Gaza’s population - and are of course its future.  

The UN has projected that infrastructure, energy, and potable water will be inadequate to sustain the population of Gaza by 2020.  Gaza’s population is already 59% larger than in the year 2000, but per capita income is 20% lower in real terms, and its unemployment rate constantly rising. Prohibition of exports to its natural markets, Israel and the West Bank, has meant that every sector of its economy has imploded.  For most people in Gaza, sadly, the only safety net is humanitarian assistance and yet, even that has become difficult. We at UNRWA are struggling to support the food aid and cash for work programmes which have sustained hundreds of thousands of people in past years. We are told that emergency funds for Gaza (at a time when the emergency is growing in depth and gravity) are becoming scarce. Syria is a newer crisis, which has monopolized attention, and has absorbed resources.

And this is not meant to belittle the tragedy of Syria. And within that, the situation facing Palestine refugees in the country, which is nothing short of horrific. We estimate that at least 70% of this population of 570,000 have been displaced, whether inside the country or beyond its borders.  It is in fact the largest displacement of Palestinians since 1967, driven by a civil war that has spread over much of the country. Many of the 12 refugee camps, located in contested areas, are now overwhelmed by fighting and insecurity. In some cases, Palestinians (and indeed other civilians) have left en masse, either fleeing from fighting or forced away at gunpoint.  The dynamics shift along with the geography of the conflict, each camp experiencing it in a different but equally devastating way. 

Amidst the violence, we have been able to continue delivering services at roughly half of the pre-conflict level, thanks to staff and thanks also to students who persist with learning despite an environment saturated with risks. To address the humanitarian crisis we are targeting the entire population of registered Palestine refugees in Syria with emergency assistance. 

I witnessed the depths of this tragedy during my visit last month to the besieged area of Yarmouk, where armed conflict and hunger have claimed many lives. We suggested then that ceasefires agreed locally, as was initially done to secure access to Yarmouk, gave some shred of hope that further arrangements - there and elsewhere - could become an embryo of stable humanitarian space, though we warned that humanitarian action is inherently fragile without the support of warring parties, and ultimately, without a comprehensive ceasefire and political agreement.  

This fragility became unfortunately evident in subsequent weeks. First, the resumption of fighting in Yarmouk cruelly set back humanitarian access and left again Palestine refugees, along with other civilians in the war-torn country, vulnerable and exposed to further deaths. In the past few days a new and very precarious ceasefire has allowed us to resume modest distributions. But it is not a tenable situation - yesterday we had to suspend operations again, this time because chaos ensued when hundreds of starving people stormed the distribution site. Such is the extent of the hunger and despair in Yarmouk, as in so many places in Syria. But we are not giving up, and our staff will be in Yarmouk again today, trying to reach those in need. However, for many the only option will be to leave their homes in renewed exile - choices, again! But flight options remain limited for Palestinians in Syria, who are not allowed to cross into Jordan and who must basically choose between unsafe internal displacement and seeking refuge in Lebanon, in overcrowded existing camps where traditionally life has been difficult for Palestinians: choices denied, again, and in cruel ways. In a region increasingly unsympathetic and unsupportive, for some there will be no choice in fact but to seek refuge further afield. The war in Syria - among many other consequences - is beginning to alter Palestine refugee geography, with implications that go well beyond the humanitarian, and may have repercussions on the quest for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.

I commented earlier on the lack of faith among Palestinians in the ability, if not intention, of the international community to see justice done to their plight. This is true for the refugees, who, through bitter experience, have learned that relying on international actors to keep promises and fulfill obligations, in a conflict so tragically corrosive to both, can carry a bitter cost. 

Against this backdrop - and in the absence, sadly, of alternatives - for many refugees UNRWA has become a stand, so to speak, on which to found their communities in the region. In spite of its limited resources, UNRWA has been a predictable provider of support in an unpredictable landscape. Refugees have often been critical of the insufficient resources channeled by the international community through UNRWA over the years - however, they have had faith enough in the Agency to enroll their children in its schools since 1950 - there are currently about 500,000  - and entrust the basic health of millions to our doctors and nurses.

Dispossessed and deprived of choices, refugees have struggled to find the support they need on the ground. UNRWA has therefore grown to be somehow an exception: not only an institution providing concrete help, and providing it directly, but also - and partly because of the trust born out of proximity and familiarity - one of important symbolic value. Families and clans reconstituted themselves around UNRWA in the refugee camps, re-forming the patchwork of villages, towns and cities of Palestine from which they were expelled. It was as if the camps were a means to re-create Palestine in absentia, awaiting the end of exile.  

To some, these facts are proof that UNRWA “perpetuates” the refugee problem. The same people repeat ad nauseam that UNRWA keeps refugees in a state of under-development. I disagree. I disagree, completely. Palestinian refugeehood is kept alive by the lack of a just solution, and such a solution can only be of a political nature. Meanwhile, UNRWA has contributed not only to the welfare of the refugees, but also to the resilience of their identity and of their sense of belonging - these are their rights as human beings: rights which ensure them at least a measure of dignity in an otherwise challenging existence.  And we have done so through basic, relatively simple and direct programmes: through our health, education, vocational training and microfinance services, we have helped Palestine refugees of both genders develop human capital, and seize opportunities in life. It is not only the suffering refugees that symbolize the significance of our work, but also the successful ones – the graduates of our vocational training centers who find employment, and Mohammad Assaf, our Youth Ambassador, who rose from the hardship of Khan Younis to global success in the region.

Therefore - and let me say this once more and very clearly - those repeating, in bad faith more than ignorance, that UNRWA is an obstacle to peace are the same people who wish to deny Palestine refugees, and Palestinians at large, those fundamental rights and that basic dignity.

The challenges of development, however, have grown dramatically over the past decade.  Seeing the risks, UNRWA started efforts to modernize itself and its services. In 2005, we initiated major reforms to make the Agency a better planner and innovator, and to make it more responsive to our main stakeholders: the refugees, the host governments, and the donors. In education, we have shifted our approach by emphasising critical thinking skills for students, and teacher development. In health, for the first time in 65 years, patients are beginning to receive personalized care from a single dedicated health team, based on computerized files. And today more than at any time in the past, UNRWA has integrated human rights and protection concepts in its programming and advocacy.  

I encourage students and faculty to learn more about the changing face of  UNRWA by visiting our Arabic website. We are investing resources and energy to reach our many Arabic-speaking stakeholders, among them, and chiefly, the refugees.  It is a constituency with whom we must engage and connect even more regularly, beyond the provider-client relationship which defines our interaction. 

Such engagement has been important to me throughout my tenure. In recent weeks, by way of farewell, I have visited several significant refugee camps across the region, to pay respect in a personal manner to the refugees, whose needs, well-being and aspirations have been at the center of my work and life since 2005. In Ein El Hilweh, Balata, Jerash, and other camps, I found the same anxiety and questions about the future, about the negotiations and what they might mean for them: familiar sentiments and concerns, perhaps, but now compounded by the deteriorating situation in the region, by the uncertainty surrounding the peace process,  and their combined effects on the refugee communities. 

Those questions are important, in so many ways, but of course I had no answers to give; the diplomatic process is still in its confidential phase. We may be, however, and as we all know, just weeks away from the unveiling of a framework which is intended to serve as the basis for negotiations leading to a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.  US Secretary of State John Kerry has shown remarkable tenacity and skill in the effort to create common ground between parties that seem so far apart in their aspirations, and are so unequal in power and status.  

What I heard in my recent visits to the camps, though, is that despite the diplomatic momentum, Palestinians and especially Palestine refugees are caught everywhere in the grip of cynicism and distrust: and who can blame them for their lack of faith and low expectations in the ability of the international community to deliver a just solution?  As it is, after the 1967 war and a series of landmark Security Council resolutions, including 242 and 338, which called for Israel to relinquish territory recently occupied, it did not take long for a broad international consensus to form in support of the two-state principle, and in its wake came the Oslo process, the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, and the Roadmap of 2004. Throughout, summitry at the highest levels has sought to break the impasse. Palestinians have borne witness to this long procession of peace plans, with its long procession of sponsors, to no avail. The conflict, and the special suffering it continues to inflict on them, remain overwhelming facts of their daily life.  

And as the framework is said to address all elements related to the conflict, I would like to make some concluding remarks about the refugees, who are after all the largest community in the Palestinian nation, and its most vulnerable since the expulsion in 1948, and who therefore have something to gain through a solution upholding the rights they claim, or everything to lose in a solution that negates them. 

In Israeli and some western media, there is a familiar discourse about Palestine refugees, now taking on special significance. They are cast by some as the chief obstacle to achieving peace; others deny their existence. Here I must disagree again of course. To us at UNRWA, and to me personally, they are resourceful women and men, full of talent and promise. They are a substantial reservoir of human capital capable of contributing to the strength, peace and stability of the region and beyond.

But they are also people deeply wounded by the traumas suffered in 1948 and since, people denied rightful choices and often excluded from participation in the societies hosting them. They have been caught in vicious cycles radiating from 1948: expulsion, entrapment, and the recurrent impact of other people’s conflicts. I would suggest that these cycles will continue unless and until the refugee voice is heard, listened to, and taken into account as a constituency with distinct claims and rights sanctioned under international law and UN resolutions, and especially resolution 194. Any framework, any agreement that does not acknowledge and recognize this will not be conducive to sustainable peace, and will produce stagnation - or worse, a climate in which violence and radicalism will find space to flourish.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Today, a dramatic image of Palestinians in Yarmouk is being displayed in New York’s Times Square and in Tokyo’s Shibuya intersection, two of the busiest places in the world. While I’m happy that we can attract attention and, hopefully, resources, to support people in distress, I am saddened by the tragic symbolism carried by this image.

Yarmouk has become another wound sustained by the Palestinian nation, another refuge lost.  It was home to a thriving community hosting 160,000 Palestine refugees, forging a living, sometimes difficult but eased by hospitality. And like other refugee communities, the Palestinians of Yarmouk sustained the hope of return to Palestine.  

How quickly it fell apart; last month, I walked the devastated streets of Yarmouk and saw Palestinian history repeating itself as expulsion and entrapment, violence and exclusion: the original exile developing into a new and bitter one. That it happened in a previously stable country, hospitable to its Palestinian guests, is powerful evidence of the implacable nature of the forces unleashed by the events of 1948.

It has not been a history faced entirely alone: UNRWA, as I have sought to explain, has embodied a commitment of the international community to relieve hardship, and to build resilience. This has been very important, and will continue to be crucial - to refugees, to host communities, to Palestinians at large, and to the stability of this region. There is therefore every reason for UNRWA to be sustained, with millions of insecure refugees in an insecure region relying daily on the Agency. But the sustainability of UNRWA should not be taken for granted: it will require, on the Agency’s part, a prudent use of its scarce resources; and on the part of all stakeholders - donors, hosts, refugees, the Palestinian leadership and Palestinians at large - the strongest possible commitment to its continuation until its services are not needed.

UNRWA is not, however, a solution to refugee needs, and to their choices.  Hundreds of millions are generously contributed to UNRWA each year by the international community, but this amount gives no measure of the true cost of denying the refugees their rightful choices for 66 years. 

We all aspire to see a Middle East in which its peoples share common interests, a stake in each other’s well-being, and equality of rights and justice. This cannot happen and will never happen under military occupation. And it is not a vision compatible with the continuing denial of rightful choices by people with a legitimate claim to their fulfillment. I trust therefore that the parties to the conflict, and those who facilitate and support dialogue, realize that as negotiations continue, and amidst many other burdens, that of addressing refugee choices in a principled and humane manner is heavy, but inescapable.  

We are not naive. We know that in the search for peace, and for a solution to all the components of the conflict, including refugees, painful compromises are being explored and sought. Precisely because of this difficult quest, I fear that failure to consult the refugees, to hear their choices, and to take these choices into account, will consecrate their exclusion, with negative, and predictable consequences. 

I do believe, however, that not all is lost; that a recognition of the injustice suffered, and of the legitimacy of their aspirations as rooted in rights and law, will be crucial first steps in including refugees in peacemaking; and that such recognition must be followed by options to be presented to them, to the extent that the difficult realities on the ground will allow. 

I do believe that this recognition, and these options, will finally put an end to long and painful decades of choices denied; will support self-determination; and will allow Palestine refugees - these proud, resourceful and steadfast members of the Palestinian nation, with whom I have had the privilege to be associated during all these years - to become at long last, and by choice, peacemakers and peacebuilders in this troubled region. 

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.