Jerusalem: City of Dispossession

10 December 2009

Today we mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a high water mark of international resolve to make the full enjoyment of human rights a living reality for all mankind. The noble aspirations of this document bring with them obligations on states, obligations which are universal and whose solemn injunctions lie beyond the reach of any particular jurisdictions.

It is, therefore, fitting that on my last official visit to Jerusalem as UNRWA Commissioner General, and on International Human Rights Day, I should come to the Sheikh Jarrah, where the failure of the international community to fulfill the promise of the Universal Declaration is so acutely felt and where the pain and ugliness of dispossession and occupation are so tragically in evidence.

I have said before that "Palestine" is a metaphor for dispossession and that dispossession, along with displacement, is a key feature of the Palestinian experience, indeed of Palestinian identity. This derives not only from the initial dispossession and displacement of the Palestine refugees in 1948, but more from the fact that 61 years later they and their descendents remain in forced exile, struggling to maintain their very presence on the remnants of their homeland.

East Jerusalem holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people, not least because it is the place, one day, they intend to establish the capital of their own state. While the international community is committed to the goal of establishing two states, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, it is difficult to imagine how that outcome can be achieved in light of the systematic settlement activity and violations of basic human rights afflicting the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem. The impact of this urban settlement activity, conducted with seeming impunity, is manifold and acute. The juxtaposition of two cultures, as exists in the building behind me, with its accompanying violence and tension, destroys the communal atmosphere that has evolved over decades.

One of the most noteworthy cases looms large over hundreds of Palestine refugees at this moment, in this very place. Since the mid-1950s, a community of 28 Palestine refugee families has been living in Sheikh Jarrah, following their forced displacement from homes and lands in Palestine in 1948, including from West Jerusalem. They found their way here as part of a unique housing scheme developed between the Jordanian government and UNRWA in 1954. Its aim was to help them become self-sufficient in preparation for the day when, along with hundreds of thousands of other Palestine refugees, a durable solution to their collective plight would be realized.

To date, four of the 28 families have lost their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, affecting over 55 people, including 20 children. At present a further eight families are under direct threat of forced eviction, having been served with orders to vacate their homes, potentially affecting as many as another 120 people. In all incidents, settlers have taken over, with the protection and assistance of the Israeli authorities. But the numbers don’t convey to the human suffering and trauma that has been the hallmark of these forced evictions.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are told that these evictions in Sheikh Jarrah are the result of a dispute involving competing property claims between Palestinians and Israelis, that it is in essence a private matter being dealt with by local courts. The United Nations rejects Israel’s claims that these cases are a matter for municipal authorities and domestic courts. Such acts are in violation of Israel’s obligations under international law.

As the Secretary-General stated last week, the United Nations is "dismayed" at the continuation of demolitions, evictions and the installing of settlers. UNRWA calls upon the Israeli authorities to reinstate all Palestine refugee families that have been displaced or forcibly evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, and asks that the dignity, rights and freedoms of these people be protected at all times.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On International Human Rights day, I would also like to highlight the plight of one of the most disadvantaged groups in this region, the Bedouins of the West Bank. As the occupying power, Israel remains responsible for ensuring that the basic needs of the occupied population are met. But many refugee Bedouin and herding communities originally displaced from their traditional lands in 1948 are experiencing multiple counts of displacement from Area C, as they are forcibly moved from their homes, most noticeably in the Greater Jerusalem envelope, the Jordan Valley and from areas close to settlements and the wall.

These groups are sinking deeper into food insecurity and abject poverty as grazing land continues to shrink and access to natural resources is severely restricted by the occupying power. Administrative demolition, forced evictions, collapsing livelihoods, poverty and settler harassment represent the key triggers to displacement for Area C herding communities and their already stretched coping mechanisms are reaching their limits. Their full rights must be respected as a matter of urgency.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have already referred to home demolitions, which the UN condemns. According to OCHA, this year alone, over 1,200 Palestinians have been displaced or affected as a result of demolitions of both residential and non-residential property in Area C and Jerusalem. Over half of these have been children.

The revocation of residency rights is also being used against the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem. According to press reports, last year set an all-time record for the number of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who were stripped of residency rights by the Israeli Interior Ministry. Altogether, the ministry revoked the residency of 4,577 East Jerusalemites in 2008 - 21 times the average of the previous 40 years.


I conclude where I began, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The opening sentence of its preamble reminds us that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world". Nowhere is this more true than with respect to the prolonged dispossession and exile of the Palestine refugees. While their dispossession and displacement continues into the fourth generation we would do well to recall that the very same General Assembly which passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948, passed resolution 194 the very next day, resolving that "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date."

On this day, and in this place, I wish to remind the international community of the unfinished business in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere in the West Bank. The dispossessed, the displaced must see their losses acknowledged, their injustices addressed. Peace is possible, but only if we insist on our universal humanity.  

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.

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