Palestine: Bridge Building for Development

28 March 2010

Monday 22 March, 2010

Committee on Development, European Parliament, Brussels
Speaking Notes: Barbara Shenstone, Director UNRWA West Bank

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen,


I come before you as a representative of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East. As you know, UNRWA was established 60 years ago as a temporary agency to provide relief and support to refugees (approx 700,000 in number at the time) who had fled historic Palestine and lost their livelihoods between 1946 and 1948 in the conflict that accompanied the creation of the State of Israel. Under a mandate adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1949, and in the absence of a durable and just solution to their plight, UNRWA continues today to provide protection, relief, and human development services to 4.7 million refugees in its five fields of operation in the Middle East (the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria)

As Director of UNRWA in the West Bank, it is a pleasure to join you today to discuss the prospects for development of this troubled part of the world. My comments will focus on the WB, as that is what I know best.

Today UNRWA maintains records for 771,000 refugees registered with us in the West Bank. They make up approximately 30 % of the WB population of 2.3 million. Of these we provide services in a regular way to approximately 600,000.

Our focus and mandate is human development programming: primary health care, elementary education, and relief and social services for the most vulnerable. We also manage three vocational training centres for unemployed youth. We also operate a small hospital and a small teacher-training facility..
In addition to these core services, most of which are provided throughout the Middle East, UNRWA implements several major Emergency programmes – made necessary in the OPT since 2000 – in Gaza and West Bank. (Also more recently Lebanon). These focus on protection, food, cash-for-work, and other livelihood initiatives meant to mitigate the worst impact of the ongoing conflict.

UNRWA’s expects to spend in the region as a whole this year approximately $500 million (Euro 362 million), and in the West Bank, approximately $140 million. We employ in the WB approximately 5000 staff (half of them elementary school teachers), most of whom are refugees themselves.

The situation today

Palestine refugees in the West Bank continue to live in a situation of protracted humanitarian and development crisis with some slight prospects for improvement in 2010.

For most refugees, who tend to be among the poorest and most vulnerable of Palestinians in the West Bank, the situation remains significantly unchanged – and by and large grim and difficult.

The core of this crisis continues to be the ongoing military occupation of the West Bank. The features of this occupation – territorial fragmentation, restrictions on the movement of people and goods, the stifling of economic growth, and not least – systemic violence and insecurity – continue to define life in the West Bank for too many Palestinians, refugees included.

Some key points relevant to the situation of refugees today:

Poverty and unemployment

It is true that during 2009, early signs of economic growth were reported, parallel with the easing of some internal movement restrictions, and a more calm security environment that prevails in the major towns.

These developments are highly welcome, but they should be seen for what they are. I believe it is too early to celebrate. To date, the positive signs of increased economic activity are slight and localized. I fear, in fact, that a general trend towards de-development continues.

As the governor of Nablus told me last week, “Yes, it is easier for Palestinians to move in and out of Nablus city; and there is more economic activity. But the changes are small, and investors are still not confident to return. While some longstanding checkpoints have been dismantled, he noted there are many new “flying” ¬– or temporary checkpoints. The Governor told me he is confident that the major cities are calmer and more secure from rogue armed groups; this thanks to the efforts of the better trained and increasingly professionalized Palestine Security Forces (PSF). But he deplored the fact that the Israeli Defence Forces continue to raid residential areas at will, making arrests, closing down areas, hunting out those they see as dissidents, all the while undermining the PSF. He noted how the system of control – permits, sudden raids, controlled access roads, no-go areas – is as strong as ever and in fact entrenched all the more deeply.

These factors led the World Bank to find – and this is borne out by our experience on the ground – that it is too early to conclude that the signs of new economic activity in the West Bank – though they appear to have led for the first time in years to positive Palestinian per capital GDP growth -- represent a trend towards sustainable economic growth. Much of the growth appears to have been generated by donor spending, generated in part by donations to alleviate the impact of last year’s war in Gaza. It may not be sustainable. We recognize that the PA faces a large deficit this year already.

What is needed is an environment conducive to private sector growth and real trade towards countries and regions beyond the WB. Even with some internal movement, access to markets outside the WB – in Gaza, in Israel, and elsewhere – is still severely limited, and does not appear to be opening up.
What is needed is a major change to the barrier and control regime, not tinkering. That is what is necessary if we are serious about reversing the devastation that the closure regime has brought to the Palestinian economy: even with slight growth this year, we must remember that per capita GDP has fallen nearly a third since 1999.

On the ground

The truth is the ongoing conflict is continuing to seriously undermine Palestinian livelihoods, including those of refugees.

Poverty rates remain especially high among the refugee population – 39.7%, with 25.6% falling below the ‘deep’ poverty line (unable to afford a basic food basket);

Unemployment rates are shockingly high also (23.5% in fourth quarter of 2009 in WB), for refugees higher (27.8 %). The highest unemployment rates are among youth – 36.3 % are currently unemployed.

The highest rates of unemployment are recorded in Hebron and Qalqilya governorates – both areas badly affected by the closure regime. In some communities near the wall, such as Biddu and Bartaa, unemployment rates have risen above 50%, turning once thriving refugee villages into localities now highly dependent on food assistance, livelihood support, family remittances, and human rights protection.

With rising poverty, we see also a trend in food insecurity in parts of the WB. There are now pockets of really acute vulnerability. A recent joint WFP, UNICEF, and UNRWA study highlights the very serious plight of the Bedouin –Herder communities that live in Area C. 79% are food insecure, 93% are in debt, with 20% having no further access to credit. They are showing alarming health indicators: 28.5% stunting in children, 15.3% under weight, and 5.9% suffering signs of ‘global acute malnutrition.’ These rates are significantly higher than the rest of the WB population, and alarming by WHO standards.

E Jerusalem – once the driving heart of the Palestinian economy – today shows signs of progressive economic and social decline. Here, movement and access show no signs of improvement – indeed a reverse trend has been observed: the eastern parts of the city are being closed off ever more tightly from the rest of the West Bank, Jewish/Israeli settlements are expanding, and there is less and less space for Palestinians to live and prosper. ‘E Jersualem risks becoming a series of slums,’ say my Palestinian colleagues in UNRWA who have watched its decline over the last 10 years, and more recently at an accelerating pace.

Violence and insecurity

Violence and insecurity continue to be a feature of daily life for refugees in the West Bank. Like other aspects of life, there are some positive changes; there is also more of the same, and unfortunately there are also new trends and new forms of violence.

For it is a grim fact that the conflict at the heart of the conflict in the West Bank may be long-standing and apparently intractable, but it is not static. There appears to be an ever evolving dynamism to the situation of uncertainty and violence.

The current climate of uncertainty in the political sphere – uncertainty in the status of peace negotiations, the possibility of Palestinian internal reconciliation, questions about the future leadership of the PA, whether, how, and when elections might be held – all these have an impact on the social and security environment, just as they also affect economic prospects. For the lack of clarity on these issues makes people anxious, short-fused, suspicious, and emotional in their calculation of options and best hopes.

Some unfortunate features of the violence:

  • IDF military operations -- at least 252 IDF military operations (‘incursions into Pal areas’) were reported in the WB in February 2010, of which 27 were into refugee camps. The number of Palestinians detained was 423, higher than the preceding 12-month average of 337 arrests per month.
  • Armed and unarmed confrontations and clashes are frequent, with 25 armed incidents (18\month average in 2009) last month, plus 72 ‘unarmed.’ Most clashes are linked to protests over the continuing construction of the wall\barrier (now 60% built). Also to flashpoints at access points to Jerusalem and to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Other flashpoints of civic unrest concern evictions and demolitions in E. Jerusalem. Most recently, they were in reaction to the announcement by the Government of Israel that two or more key WB religious sites (Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem among them) were to be added to a list of Israeli ‘national heritage’sites.
  • Settler violence – steadily rising. It takes the form of physical attacks on Palestinian people and damage or destruction of Palestinian property – including occupying or damaging land, blocking paths and roads, burning olive groves and other crops, damaging or taking farm equipment, buildings and possessions. (In Jan-Feb 2010, 84 incidents reported. In all of 2009: 454, up 28% from 2008: 363, up 118% from 2007). All too often incidents are not investigated by the Israeli police, and an air of impunity prevails. Meanwhile settlement growth continues, in direct contradiction of international law, and in spite of the rhetoric seen in the media.
  • Violence connected to forced evictions and demolitions of houses and buildings in E Jerusalem and Area C. Evictions have stopped since Nov 2009, possibly due to international pressure. However as many as 60,000 Palestinians could be at risk of displacement in future if measures planned for the expansion of Jewish settlements and the parallel constraining of Palestinian development go ahead.
  • Deficiencies in ability of the PA to maintain law and order. Yes, armed dissidence from rogue militias is more or less under control . A welcome relief to the citizens of the five major towns where the PSF operate (Area A). Still, crime is problematic in the fragmented jurisdictions of the various security forces. The PA police do not like to enter refugee camps, and do so gingerly. They cannot enter Area C (60% of the WB) and operate under Israeli coordination/ supervision in Area B.. The IDF are not interested in controlling crime as much as political or social dissent. The court and legal system for all Palestinians remains underdeveloped, partly in the absence of a functioning legislature. This means that criminals can take cover by moving through the fractured jurisdictions. For refugees living in the high density urban areas that camps have become, security is fragile and transitory for many.

UNRWA – challenged and motivated by this context

This is the context that UNRWA operates in, and that we must respond to. Every day we are reminded that the situation on the ground in the WB is dynamic and never static. New needs are emerging for refugees, and we face constant demands to be more relevant, more responsive to localized disparities (of wealth, safety, opportunity, etc.) and above all, not to slip backwards in maintaining an acceptable standard of service delivery – whether it be for educating young children, implementing our programme of primary health care, distributing food to the poorest, supporting livelihoods with jobs and micro-finance loans, or any of the other basic services we provide for refugees each day.

While there may be bubbles or pockets of hopeful progress in some locations of the West Bank, notably around Ramallah, there are also many pockets of continuing de-development. This necessitates targeted locally relevant approaches to development and assistance. Key areas of vulnerability include the hard-pressed communities of Area C, the barrier communities (both sides) and the impoverished Palestinian neighbourhoods of E. Jerusalem (where 70,000 refugees live).

The fractured, volatile, and uncertain context of the West Bank has led UNRWA to recognize that our programmes can no longer work in isolation or to a cookie cutter approach. We have to work together within UNRWA, with key stakeholders like the PA, with other partners in and outside the UN family, to be responsive and protective of the refugees we serve. We continue to deliver fundamental basic services – and we understand that to do this we must take into account the highly fractious, unstable, and uncertain environment of the West Bank. That means doing new things and doing old things differently.


As the World Bank latest Economic Monitoring Report highlights, the extension of the Barrier regime and the matrix of control that goes with it, as well as restrictions on development of land and water resources in Area C (60% of the WB), as well as continued settlement expansion, seriously undermine the prospects and sustainability of economic growth in the West Bank..

Ladies and gentlemen, we need your help. We need to see real and positive developments on the ground, not tinkering, if the process of de-development and progressive impoverishment is to be reversed. We need to see a lifting of the matrix of control and a real extension of the space and empowerment of the Palestinian people to manage their own development on a viable piece of territory. We need also to pay special attention to E. Jerusalem, where social peace as well as the prospects for economic development hang in the balance. We need to continue to support the positive achievements of the PA, and keep faith with its intentions to build a prosperous peaceful state living in harmony with its neighbours.

Above all we need your political initiative to get peace going. That is the key to everything – the beginning and the end. The alternative is just too dreadful to contemplate.

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.