‘Persecution does not make the just man to suffer, Nor does oppression destroy him if he is on the right side of Truth. What truly hurts is our conscience that aches when we oppose it, And dies when we betray it.’ (Khalil Gibran)
IntroIn the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, which forced some 800,000 persons to flee their homes in mandate Palestine, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 on 8 December 1949 with a mandate ‘to carry out direct relief and work programmes for Palestine’.The Agency has grown and adapted over the past 62 years, from an organisation that provided relief in the form of lifesaving shelter, food, water and sanitation assistance into a human development institution responsible for basic public services and human rights protection. Primary education and health care, social services, microfinance from the early 1990s and since 2006, infrastructure and camp development are formal UNRWA programmes. UNRWA has also been called upon repeatedly to undertake emergency activities (particularly food distribution and shelter rehabilitation) in times of crisis. Today UNRWA serves over 4.7 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory (West Bank and Gaza). It renders these basic emergency, development and human rights services with a staff complement of 30,000 refugees (teachers, doctors, nurses, sanitation workers, administrators) and 150 international staff funded through a regular budget of around $550 million a year and an emergency budget of another $500 million.AchievementsUNRWA’s success in contributing to a self-reliant refugee population is demonstrated by the facts that 2/3 of the refugees live outside camps and only 6 per cent are dependent on social services (other than those subject to occupation and blockades in Gaza and the West Bank, therefore receiving essential food distributions). UNRWA graduates, who have a reputation as well-trained, hardworking, dependable colleagues, are in demand all around the region as teachers, administrators and medical personnel.Over the years, UNRWA has demonstrated its dynamism and flexibility, responding to new and changing needs, while maintaining true to its basic mandate of offering direct services and opportunities to refugees. Agency management has also adapted its focus as necessary to the circumstances in each of the host countries, while ensuring that a common thread of assistance, development and refugee rights are accorded appropriate attention in each location.
Change and Adaptation A particular moment provoking new thinking and approaches occurred in 1967 with the occupation of Palestine, necessitating that UNRWA take on a more conscious ‘protection’ and rights-based approach. The impact of the occupation on the refugees and how UNRWA reacted is well documented in UNRWA’s Annual Reports to the General Assembly, beginning in the years after 1967. Carrying out its basic public service tasks raised new challenges in the West Bank and Gaza, given that a new and not entirely cooperative interlocutor had entered the operating environment.
Two decades later, responding to the situation in Palestine during the first Intifada, which broke out in December 1987, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 681 (20/12/90), which requested, inter alia, ‘. . .the Secretary General to monitor and observe the situation regarding Palestinian civilians under Israeli occupation, making new efforts in this regard on an urgent basis, . . . and to keep the Security Council regularly informed.’ A progress report was expected by March, 1991, and every four months thereafter. UNRWA was assigned this task, which led to a broader interpretation and implementation of its mandate, including the creation of a Refugee Affairs Officer (RAO) programme to offer protection to the refugees through a monitoring presence.The second Intifada which erupted in September 2000 placed even heavier demands upon UNRWA, both in its having to continue and enhance its emergency and protection services in a war zone and, since 2006-7, to function in the context of a continuously deepening siege of Gaza. The RAO programme was revived and strengthened with a more active ‘protection’ regime staffed by Operation Support Officers. Through persistent, humanitarian-based negotiations, the Agency has ensured minimal life-preserving services for refugees in the occupied territory throughout these four fraught decades.
Host Country Challenges
Mention has been made of the varied environments of the host countries. A brief look at some of the internal issues follows.Refugees in Lebanon have faced unique challenges, in the first instance arising from the particular demography of Lebanon and of the refugee population, and from the history of Palestinian activities in the country, both of which led to suspicious, if not outright hostile, relations with some local groups. In recent years, however, the government has been working to modify laws on refugee employment and property ownership, while cooperating with UNRWA and donors to improve living conditions in the refugee camps. Still, in 2007 when fundamentalist infiltrators into the Nahr el-Bared camp in northern Lebanon attacked the Lebanese army, the army’s subsequent destruction of the camp left 30,000 previously fairly well-off refugees without homes and livelihoods. A major financial, logistic and political effort by all parties, Lebanese, refugees, the international community and UNRWA, is underway to completely rebuild the camp.
Another challenge from host authorities was the initial reaction to activities of the Infrastructure and Camp Development’ programme. A concern of some in the host governments (particularly in Syria and Lebanon) and others in the refugee community itself was that UNRWA was working on behalf of those who want to ‘settle’ the refugees where they are, effectively depriving them of their right of return and compensation, as promised in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 11 December 1948. Many hours have been spent in discussions with hosts and refugees to promote the understanding that offering decent living conditions, however temporary, is not tantamount to settlement, but a refugee right.
Finally, however, it is the refugees who live under occupation in West Bank and Gaza who endure the harshest conditions. The visible and positive (though somewhat superficial and narrowly enjoyed} economic and security developments in the West Bank, are dependent on a heavy input of external aid and resources, and do not bring much benefit to the refugees, especially those in camps, given the numerous checkpoints, house demolitions and evictions, along with relentless settlement expansion. The suffering of Gazans under siege has been thoroughly and repeatedly documented, evincing, inter alia, that 80 per cent of the population (refugees and non-refugees) is food insecure, 40 per cent unemployed and a private sector functioning at only 5 per cent of its pre-2006 capacity.
For all 4.7 million refugees the uncertainty about their political (and geographic) future and their ‘invisibility’ in the discussions about that future is the most unsettling and disturbing factor in their lives.
The Unpredictable Financing Factor
A refugee population that increases every year along with rising costs of providing services creates what amounts to a repetitive, structural problem for an agency that must raise voluntary funds for its budget on an annual basis.
The 1990s exaggerated these financial challenges. Following the1993 Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government, known as the Oslo Accords, donors began to focus their efforts on building the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, in preparation for the full functioning of a Palestinian state, which was expected to take over the UNRWA tasks. The long, drawn out ‘peace process’ and ever receding vision of a viable state of Palestine(*) ensured that this particular downturn in funding was overcome, leaving re-occurrences to be more often related to the general economic downturn, competing humanitarian emergencies or questions about who are UNRWA’s beneficiaries.
Current Preoccupations Being a human development and humanitarian agency, UNRWA is not involved in ‘political’ activities, so has no direct role in discussions and negotiations around the peace process. However, the Agency endeavours to ensure that the political actors and parties to the negotiations are aware of ‘facts on the ground,’ including the views of refugees, who otherwise have little input. UNRWA firmly and repeatedly contends that the refugees have been largely absent from meaningful negotiations and that the refugee ‘final status issue’ is the one least seriously addressed at any of the ‘peace’ conferences, meetings or summits. Negotiators ignoring refugee preferences do so at peril of the sustainability of any agreement.
The Agency’s relationship with Israel occupies a great deal of its time and energy, on a very basic level, simply to negotiate passage of people and goods in and out of Gaza and around the West Bank. Individual interlocutors maintain respectful contacts, ensuring a minimum flow of goods and a much less than minimally essential movement of people, particularly when it comes to Palestinian staff. UNRWA has relied at times on the support of Israeli government officials to defend its work in the occupied territory against unfair and inaccurate criticism from external parties, most often some in the United States Congress.
One of the less visible (or audible) challenges to UNRWA comes from some refugees, who echo other critics who speak of UNRWA’s perpetuation of the refugee ‘problem.’ It must be said that the refugees would still be refugees should UNRWA disappear. Furthermore, UNRWA’s demise would be unlikely to be a deciding factor leading to refugee or Palestinian independence.
There are refugee groups, as well, who, while acknowledging the benefits of the services offered, raise the issues of dependency and the fact that the stabilising, palliative, pressure-relieving UNRWA services prevent a ‘revolution’ that might force a positive change in refugee circumstances. This charge is one often leveled at humanitarian agencies, and one which is difficult to deflect, containing at least partial truths. UN agencies contend that they do not have a ‘withdrawal’ option from their internationally-bestowed mandates, which prescribe life-saving assistance.
On the Bright Side
Having mentioned financial challenges and criticism that arises in some donor political circles, it is important to mention the very strong support that UNRWA enjoys from its major donors, foremost among them the United States and the European Union. The Population, Refugee and Migration Bureau of the U.S. State Department through its Refugee Coordinator in the field and her Washington colleagues perform a heroic task in defending UNRWA and securing its funding from Congress. Despite the literally constant attempts by some representatives and senators to decrease support, funding for UNRWA has increased over the years to meet new and growing needs, complementing the input from the second largest donor, the European Union, along with individual European countries that also figure among the top donors. From the Arab world, significant funding is offered for infrastructure and emergency projects, while inroads are being made to encourage support for basic services and administrative expenses, particularly for the large complement of Palestinian staff.
A Concluding Personal Appeal
I take the liberty of ending with a suggestion to those who are wary, skeptical or hostile and even to those who are sympathetic, supportive and friendly to consider adopting a clearer and more balanced view about both Palestine refugees, their capabilities, needs, rights and desires, and about UNRWA, its capabilities, needs, objectives and desires.
I ask readers to entertain a second thought about how the Palestine refugees would have fared--and would fare in the future--in the absence of UNRWA or that which would have to be invented to take its place.*The issue of the moment is whether newly announced ‘proximity (again?) talks’ have any chance of reviving the peace process, at least in any way that might do justice to Palestinian rights or if, instead, the declaration of a state of Palestine will be accepted at the United Nations, moving the goal posts significantly and creating a new scenario for both Palestinians and Israelis to tackle.Karen Koning AbuZayd was Commissioner General of UNRWA between 2005 and 2010