Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean

24 October 2009

24 October 2009

Statement by Karen Koning AbuZayd, UNRWA Commissioner-General

Fourth Plenary Session

Istanbul, Turkey
Mr. Chairman, Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, Your Excellencies, distinguished Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean:

I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this Session and to offer my thoughts on questions on which the Parliamentary Assembly, Palestine refugees and UNRWA share a common interest.

The intersection of our interests is self-evident. The Parliamentary Assembly strives through multilateral cooperation to safeguard prosperity and foster stability in the Mediterranean region. The work of the Third Standing Committee, with its focus on human rights and dialogue among cultures, religions and civilizations, speaks to the ingredients that are essential to realizing the goals of peace and security for all.

For UNRWA, a humanitarian and human development agency devoted to the protection and care of Palestine refugees, these themes resonate with relevance and urgency. We are a part of the United Nations system and as such, our mission draws from the same source as that which motivates this Parliamentary Assembly and its work.

That source is the United Nations Charter, whose sixty-fourth anniversary falls on this very day, for it is the Charter’s vision to which we all must demonstrate allegiance – a vision of a world governed by international law and free from "the scourge of war", and in which State actions are governed by a shared responsibility to seek the "economic and social advancement of all peoples", to resolve disputes exclusively through negotiation and other peaceful means, and to respect, and ensure respect, for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction.

These are universal values on which our world is founded. Yet it is apparent that they bear little relationship to the lives of the majority of Palestinians and Palestine refugees. If we truly share a commitment to giving these values concrete expression for all peoples without distinction, then States and organizations such as this Assembly must continue to give high priority to addressing the dire conditions Palestinians and Palestine refugees endure.

I shall briefly outline those conditions, placing them in the context of the substantive international questions they raise, and identify a few of the broader implications of the present state of affairs. I shall conclude with a few reflections on the need for renewed and more vigorous international action to resolve the Palestinian condition and the plight of Palestine refugees.

From the standpoint of UNRWA’s extensive operational presence, we see Palestine refugees facing considerable challenges wherever they live in the Middle East, albeit to varying degrees. In Jordan and Syria, significant numbers of refugees are affected by chronic poverty, even though they benefit from civil and economic rights approximate to those of citizens and enjoy the advantages of a secure and stable environment. In Lebanon, where the situation has improved over the past four years, refugees’ freedom of movement outside the 12 refugee camps is still limited and their access to employment constrained, all of which contributes to poor living standards.

The greatest threats to the well-being of Palestinians and Palestine refugees, however, are posed in the occupied Palestinian territory.

In the West Bank, isolation and segregation are among the most glaring features of the Palestinian condition. A range of administrative, legal and physical obstacles curtail freedom of movement to a degree that prevents normal social interaction and restricts the scope for Palestinian livelihoods and economic self-sufficiency. The expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands aggravates the constriction of Palestinian living space, while settler violence compounds the physical risks. Recent reports of economic recovery in the West Bank must be put in perspective. The stark reality is that the majority of Palestine refugees [in the West Bank] are affected by unemployment and deep poverty.

Palestinians also contend with myriad threats to their physical safety. Military incursions, demolition of homes, arrests and detention and armed clashes occur frequently. The lives of West Bank residents are also placed at risk by violence and armed engagements between Palestinian factions.

In Gaza, no aspect of life is spared the adverse effects of a blockade now in its 28th month. Besides a total ban on exports, items denied entry into Gaza cover a shifting range - from cash, books, paper for textbooks and hearing aid batteries, to light bulbs, candles, matches, blankets, tea, coffee, chocolate and nuts.

The deliberately imposed closure of Gaza’s borders to all but the bare minimum of imports has resulted in malnutrition and deep poverty, with the number of abject poor tripling in recent months to reach 300,000. Public services, including in critical areas such as public health and waste disposal, are in a state of near collapse. High unemployment levels and moribund commerce and industry have produced an economy almost entirely reliant on underground tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt. Construction materials are on the long list of prohibited imports. This means that UNRWA and other aid agencies are prevented from implementing plans to help Gazans recover from the devastation of the recent conflict and to rebuild their lives.

Sporadic armed confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians continue to claim Palestinian lives and to place Israeli civilians at risk. The firing of rockets from Gaza, although drastically reduced, has not ceased, and neither have airstrikes and other robust Israeli actions against Palestinian targets.

Your Excellencies:

This brief outline hints at the link between the Palestinian condition and an array of issues whose implications transcend the borders of Israel and the occupied territory and impinge on the international sphere.

Among the most pressing of these questions are the following:

  • the unfulfilled right to self-determination and the establishment of a Palestinian State;
  • the legal implications of the occupation by any State of another’s territory;
  • the obligations of occupying powers and the extent to which the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms is possible under occupation;
  • the entitlement of Palestine refugees to a durable solution that reflects their informed and freely stated wishes and is consistent with international justice, human rights and the principles of international protection;
  • the entitlement to economic and social freedoms and to conditions conducive to economic self-sufficiency and a decent standard of living;
  • the legal constraints on the use of force and the injunctions against recourse to war as a means of resolving a conflict; and,
  • the protection of civilians - Palestinians and Israelis alike - in armed conflict, including enforcement of the rules demanding accountability for violations of the laws of war;

These matters go to the heart of UN Charter obligations of States to create and maintain a world governed by humanity and the rule of international law. Yet, Palestinians, since 1948, have pleaded in vain for solutions, even as decade after decade, armed conflicts and political divisions have been – and continue to be – successfully resolved in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere across the globe.

There are serious repercussions from the state of perennial conflict and the elusiveness of a negotiated resolution. Questions of land and the demarcation of borders lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Yet the occupation per se and the actions taken as a consequence of it are radically compromising the character and measure of the territory and borders which should properly constitute the foundation of a viable Palestinian State.

It is clear that besides land and borders, another prerequisite for a viable Palestinian State, namely the integrity of the Palestinian body politic, is also at risk. The fracture between Fatah and Hamas places the very unity of the Palestinian people under enormous stress. It remains to be seen how successful current reconciliation efforts will be. The influence of militancy and extremist elements, especially in Gaza, threaten to introduce strains of radicalism and intolerance into a culture that has long embraced open, universal values.

Recurrent episodes of intense armed conflict are taking a heavy toll on the physical and psycho-social well-being of all who live in the occupied territory. With each incursion, assault, armed engagement or airstrike, Palestinian trauma mounts. The cumulative, long-term impact on individuals, particularly on children and other vulnerable sections of the population are difficult to measure. Still, it is all but certain that the effects are likely to be extremely debilitating.

Meanwhile, the wretchedness of life in the occupied Palestinian territory, coupled with diminishing hopes for a negotiated solution have prompted thousands of Palestinians to migrate elsewhere, taking with them the professional skills, investments and human capital which a newly-established State will badly need.

Your Excellencies:

The longer the international community lingers over achieving a solution to the conflict, the more license we lend to the erosion of the building blocks of a Palestinian State. This, in turn, makes less feasible the likelihood of a solution that will satisfy objective requirements of a just and lasting peace.

My appeal is for the current search for a negotiated solution to be imbued with fresh urgency and inspired by innovative, principled approaches. Over the years, negotiations have fallen short of the standards required to fulfill the precedence given in the UN Charter to the peaceful settlement of disputes. There has been a selective, exclusive approach to inviting parties to the negotiations, leaving significant constituencies unrepresented at the table and thus undermining the credibility of the negotiation process, not least in the eyes of excluded groups. Also, the items for negotiation have been identified partly by reference to their perceived difficulty, with matters such as the refugee issue, Jerusalem, [borders] and water resources left off the agenda, because they are deemed too sensitive or too contentious. [th]

It is time to work together to reverse these trends with a view to creating a new dynamic for inclusive, all-encompassing dialogue between Israel and Palestinians as a means towards the end of promoting a negotiated solution to this conflict. We must explore the possibilities for broader, more informed representation by all stakeholders, ensuring that access to the negotiation table is determined by objective assessments of the weight of a party’s interest and its potential contribution to promoting the implementation of any future outcomes.

We must also take a bolder, more forthright approach to the issues allowed for negotiation. From UNRWA’s standpoint, we make a plea for particular attention to be paid to the refugee issue, complex as it is. To create opportunities for refugees themselves – as well as other stakeholders - to express their views openly could generate a positive dynamic from which clarity of options and informed choices are almost certain to emerge.

These thoughts on invigorating the process of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and negotiation require consideration and action in the political sphere. On that account, this Parliamentary Assembly, with its influence across the Mediterranean and its interest in dialogue and human rights, has a role to reflect on these suggestions with a view to taking them forward.

As legislators, spokespersons and representatives of political constituencies throughout the Mediterranean, each member of this Assembly [also] has a role to play in generating a deeper understanding of the Palestinian condition and ensuring that efforts to address its various dimensions are maintained as a high priority on the agendas of Mediterranean States. In this regard, I was encouraged by the visit of the PAM delegation to Gaza in May last year, and urge your Excellencies to return as often as you can. It is essential that you keep your first-hand view of conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory fresh and that your direct observations serve as a spur to action to safeguard the rights and interests of those most gravely affected by this conflict.

Your Excellencies,

The troubling Palestinian condition is one of the outstanding issues of our age. It casts a shadow over the Mediterranean region, causing untold human misery and generating risks to our collective stability and security well beyond regional borders. For sixty years, UNRWA, in partnership with States, has faithfully pursued its humanitarian and human development role, striving to ensure that the basic needs of Palestine refugees are addressed. While we will continue to perform this role, the stark reality remains that the plight of refugees will be truly eased only when a just and definitive negotiated solution is found to the underlying conflict.

To this day, efforts to work towards a negotiated peace have been impeded by complex obstacles. Still, I firmly believe that a negotiated solution remains possible through a principled, inclusive process of dialogue. I have suggested some considerations that might help lead the way towards such a process.

I also hope that as an Assembly, and in your individual capacities, you will bear in mind the extreme travail Palestinians and Palestine refugees endure, and take whatever action may be possible to end their suffering, as required by the UN Charter and by human rights precepts.

Those who call the Mediterranean home should not rest until the day that a viable State of Palestine is established and a just and lasting solution is found to the plight of Palestine refugees.

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 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank 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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Two UNRWA students from Gaza enjoy recess in their first day of school. © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Rushdi Al-Saraj
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