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Q & A with UNRWA Commissioner Karen Abu Zayd - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Q) UNRWA[United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees] observed the60th anniversary of its establishment in the presence of Queen Raniya of Jordan, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, and the foreign ministers of most of the Arab and Muslim countries, including the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Syria. Was it a sad or happy occasion?

A) It was a very sad occasion. We commemorated 60 years of suffering by the Palestinian refugees, including 40 years under the Israeli occupation. In this sense, we commemorated an anniversary, but we also reminded the world of the issue, of the accomplishments of the refugees, of what UNRWA is doing and what it needs to do, and of how we can increase our activities, including the financing aspect. After 60 years of work, we have started facing financing problems, even in the financing of our essential activities.

Q) What do you mean by your essential activities?

A) Our essential activities include education, basic healthcare programs, social services, infrastructure services, improvement of living conditions in refugee camps, and small loans. This is the major part of our essential work, in addition to emergency services when the need arises. About 500,000 Palestinian students in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip are under the care and administration of UNRWA. This is in addition to the millions of patients who visit UNRWA hospitals annually, which depends wholly on the assistance that UNRWA offers.

Q) What is UNRWA’s annual budget? How much do you need to spend on these activities?

A) The annual budget for essential services or activities, which we call “the general financing” and which includes education, healthcare, social services, infrastructure services, and small loans, amounts to $500 million. In addition to the emergency services budget for Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, our overall annual general budget amounts to $1 billion. However, we do not receive the entire amount; we have a deficit of about $100 million that impedes some activities such as infrastructure improvement. This is a very urgent matter since the infrastructure is about 50 years old. Our budget is also not enough to cover the emergency services that we provide. But our primary concern is the shortage of money to cover our essential activities such as education and healthcare services. This year, for instance, and although we are close to the end of the year, our deficit is $17 million. We hope that through our contacts in New York and through the General Assembly, we will be able to cover this deficit, which would tide us over until the end of the year. However, our deepest worry is for 2010 when we will be beginning the year with nothing.

Q) Is the reason behind UNRWA’s deficit a political one or is it just an economic crisis?

A) I believe that it is more than just the world economic crisis. The governments of the world have set budgets that have enabled them to surmount this year’s crises and difficulties. But these governments have cautioned us that next year’s assistance to us will be equal to this year’s. This is not enough. We have more refugees; we need more teachers and the number of students is always rising. We always hope that the donor countries would give us a little more every year and many countries used to do that until recently. There are also other costs that we have to cover, such as increased cost of transportation, gas, food, and currency fluctuations. All these factors have impacted the whole world and have raised the cost of everything. This is one of the basic reasons for the budget deficit.

Q) Has the control of Hamas over the Gaza Strip affected the support given to UNRWA?

A) No. On the contrary, UNRWA began receiving more aid after Hamas took over. The donor countries did not want Hamas to monopolize the services, and they are familiar with the real problems that the Gaza Strip is facing, especially after the Gaza war in January. A lot of money was allocated, or at least pledged, for reconstruction. UNRWA will be able to accomplish a lot of reconstruction if the borders were opened and if the building materials needed for reconstruction are allowed to enter. If the borders were opened, we have a lot of money that can be used for reconstruction as well as for other activities such as education and so on. Thus, I do not think that the control of Hamas over the Gaza Strip has adversely impacted the issue of aid given to us. The opposite is true.

Q) Apart from Gaza, what about UNRWA’s activities in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon?

A) Thank you for asking this question because I like to talk about the refugees in Jordan and Syria. Many people do not talk about or do not hear about the refugees in these two countries because their living conditions are relatively stable and they receive more care from the two host countries. In Jordan as well as Syria, they are almost citizens. The refugees in these two countries can go to schools and universities, and they are part of the workforce. In other words, their living conditions are relatively well and close to the living conditions of the citizens of these countries. The governments of Jordan and Syria deserve a lot of praise. As for Lebanon, the problem in the past was related to the way the refugees were treated and how they were looked at. They were not allowed to work in many sectors or occupy certain positions. They were not allowed to improve conditions in the camps where they lived. However, since 2005 when the government of [Prime Minister] Fouad Siniora took over, laws have changed, giving the refugees the right to look for work and allowing UNRWA to improve living conditions inside the camps. The Lebanese Government also coordinated with us in contacting the donor countries, and we received $250 million to improve living conditions in the camps. But the real problem in Lebanon is the state of affairs in the Nahr al-Barid camp, which was totally destroyed in the summer of 2007. We had cleared the land of the remnants of the war, but when we were ready to build and reconstruct, an issue erupted, which prevented us from building on government-owned land. The government has promised us that the issue will be resolved and that we will be able to build. But two whole years have passed since these refugees have been living in temporary camps. This is a change in the conditions that prevailed in the Nahr al-Barid camp prior to the war when this camp was one of the best camps and enjoyed good economic conditions. It was a center for trade, and the majority of the refugees in it enjoyed good conditions and good jobs. We want to help them return to that way of life as soon as possible.

Q) Would you compare UNRWA’s activities 60 years ago with that of the present?

A) This can be inferred by the description we use for these activities. They began under the name of “relief works.” The idea was to start a huge development project in the rest of the Palestinian lands similar to the “Tennessee Valley Authority” [TVA] in the United States. (This project was inaugurated by US President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to overcome the effects of the Great Depression of 1929 by pumping government funds in government development projects. After its success in the United States, the TVA became a model for development in the rest of the world). However, the plan did not succeed for several reasons: The refugees did not prefer to be settled anywhere else except Palestine. Moreover, the host countries did not want to grant them citizenship because they wanted the refugees to return to their houses one day. But with the passage of years and the fact that the refugees did not return to their houses, UNRWA became a “humanitarian development” agency offering all basic services that are normally offered by states or governments, such as primary education, health services, and infrastructure services. As more time passed and in the wake of the first intifadah, the UN General Assembly [UNGA] and the UNSC issued resolutions stipulating that UNRWA should “protect and assist” the refugees. Thus we became a “human rights” institution, an institution that defines the rights of refugees on the basis of international laws. In addition to our work in the field of essential services such as schools and hospitals, we are determined to educate the refugees about their rights and promote Palestinian rights and the principles of human rights.

Q) Speaking of human rights, what is your opinion on the report of Justice Richard Goldstone on the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas?

A) UNRWA welcomed it strongly. We believe that it is a solid and consistent report full of details; it is also well documented. We in UNRWA conducted a special investigation into the war and the destruction of the infrastructure. But Goldstone’s report focuses on people and on what happened to them. We are closely monitoring what will happen to the report.

Q) What is your opinion on the [Palestinian] Authority’s decision to defer the debate by the Human Rights Council on the Goldstone Report?

A) I can only say that the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were deeply frustrated and disappointed. Once again, they felt that their right to have justice is being denied. As far as UNRWA is concerned, the commissioner general’s office will continue to defend the right to accountability, which is a very necessary principle to push the peace process forward. Taking the recommendations of the Goldstone Report seriously would have been a step in the right direction.

Q) There have been reports on the effect of the international campaign that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Baraq have launched against the Goldstone Report.

A) They launched a campaign around the world, especially in the United States. They do not want the report to go to the Security Council and they are resorting to all means to prevent this from happening. We have to wait and see whether they have succeeded.

Q) Do you think that the results of the report and its condemnation of both Israel and Hamas reflect what truly happened in the war on Gaza?

A) From what we saw and from what we know, the report does indeed reflect what happened on the ground. I believe that what is important about the report is that it confirms information that we already had about the war. It also confirms the information of other international human rights organizations such as the “Human Rights Watch” and “Amnesty International” as well as the information of the Arab League. So, since all these organizations reached the same conclusion, it shows that the information contained in Goldstone’s report is correct.

Q) How do you describe the humanitarian conditions in Gaza today?

A) They are very bad. Some medical materials and essential food items did reach the Gaza Strip, but the people cannot live only on basic food and medication. More than 60 percent of the people of Gaza live on the food rations that UNRWA distributes. This has been the case since the first intifadah in October 2000 when Israel stopped admitting Palestinian workers and when the majority of Palestinians stopped earning regular wages. The people are without work. They live on flour, lentils, vegetable oil, milk powder, and a little bit of sugar. This is very bad, particularly since it has been going on for about 10 years. Most of the people are still living in tents or rented houses. Winter is almost upon us, and conditions will become worse for the Palestinians in Gaza. The people need water and electricity. Gaza is a city where people live in multi-floor buildings. They need electricity, running water, heating, and fuel. But these items are extremely scarce, and when they are smuggled through tunnels, their prices become exorbitantly high. Another scarce item in Gaza is financial liquidity due to the restrictions that Israel has imposed and the dismissal of workers. You may have money in the bank, but you cannot convert it into cash and take it to a store to buy food.

Q) Do you intervene in the domestic policies in the Palestinian territories? For instance, if you monitor corruption in one of the government agencies, do you inform the authorities of such corruption?

A) No, this is none of our business. We notice such things, but we do not interfere in the affairs of the authorities.

Q) What about the general funding? Who gives most of the funds?

A) The largest donors are the EU and the United States. About 90 percent of the general funding comes from 50 countries that generally fund humanitarian organizations in the world. We also receive Arab support, especially aid directed toward emergency projects and services. We have urged the Arab countries to help more, and we have explained that we need guaranteed financial allocations in advance in order to be able to plan our annual projects. This is what we would like to see from the Gulf countries, for instance. Just as we want help for UNRWA to build a school, we also want UNRWA to be helped by providing it with financial liquidity to facilitate the administration of a school and pay the salaries of teachers.

Q) Do you think that the reluctance to give UNRWA liquid money is the worry that some of it may go to Hamas?

A) I think the issue is related to how charitable work is viewed. Zakat [a percentage of a Muslim’s income given as alms] is a specific aid that you give to your neighbor because he is in need. I do not think the issue is related to concerns that part of this money will reach Hamas in one way or another. Everyone knows that UNRWA spends on projects that it said it will spend on. We agree in advance on the projects and the activities with the donor countries and we abide by what we agree upon.

Q) What is the percentage of the contribution of the Arab countries to UNRWA’s budget? Is it 10 percent, for instance?

A) I wish it were so. The Arab League had issued a decision that the Arab countries should cover 7.8 percent of UNRWA’s annual budget. However, this happened only once in 20 years when the decision was made. In our general budget, Arab funding is about 2 percent or even 1 percent as was the case last year. Things are improving, however. We now have a fund-raising specialist in the Arab world working for us. He was a former British ambassador in the Arab countries. He is trying to help by raising funds for UNRWA, and he is good at it. He knows to whom to turn for donations. We are now receiving very good donations from the Red Crescent societies. These societies are not associated, of course, with the Arab Gulf governments. The situation is gradually improving.

Q) In the past few weeks, many meetings have been held, such as the trilateral summit held by Obama, Netanyahu, and Abu-Mazin [Mahmud Abbas]. As an official in charge of the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees, are you worried about the final solutions pertaining to 4 million refugees in the Middle East? Does your work also include concern for the fate of the refugees?

A) Of course, a part of my work is to draw attention not only to the general principles of the rights of the refugees but also to their principal right of return. Of course, this is up to the refugees and is related to the political aspect of the issue of the refugees. I do not think that the peace process would succeed without the involvement of the refugees. The refugee issue is one of the issues of the final solution, like Jerusalem, water, and the borders. But no one is talking to the refugees. Many discussions are currently taking place but the refugees are not involved in them. These discussions are taking place without consulting the refugees or learning about their past. We strongly feel that the issue of the refugees should be a top priority. We must begin discussing the subject and formulate basic parameters for it. We must give the refugees the opportunity to choose. The refugees should freely choose their own fate. They should participate in the negotiations, and they should be consulted. They should say: This is what we want. We will not know what the refugees want unless we give them the right to speak and we give them various options. Do they want to live in the Palestinian state? Will they remain in the countries where they are now? Will they go to a third country?

Q) Is this issue related to conducting an opinion poll to learn about the inclinations of the refugees?

A) No, some have indeed conducted opinion polls. They discovered that the subject is very sensitive, and they got into problems. Several good public opinion pollsters in the Palestinian territories tried this and then abandoned their plans in the wake of the strong criticism to which they were subjected. When you ask the refugees about their options, the overwhelming majority says: I want the right of return. I want to have the option of returning if I wish so, and I want to be compensated as well since Resolution 194 provided for compensation.

Q) Reports have leaked that one of the proposed solutions to the problem of the refugees is granting them the Palestinian citizenship, passport, and identity with all the attending rights while remaining in the countries of the Diaspora where they now reside. Do you think this is practical? Do you think it can be implemented?

A) They can obtain a Palestinian passport, but what good will that do them if they do not have a state to which they can return?

Q) The idea sounds like a compromise. Since many of the refugees will not be able to return, why can they not be compensated with a Palestinian passport and identity even if they wish to continue to live in Jordan or Lebanon or Syria.

A) I do not know how they can enjoy or what they can gain from the Palestinian identity if they remain abroad.

Q) This is one of the formulas.

A) It sounds like a confusing one to me.

Q) In your opinion, what is the best solution?

A) This is a question that I cannot answer. I should not speak for the refugees, and the only clear answer I get from them is: I want to return. When I ask they say: I want the right of return. The refugees should be informed about the expected features of the peace process. In other words, they should be informed about the expected end.

Q) You sound very proud of the accomplishments of the Palestinian refugees and their children that graduated from UNRWA schools.

A) There are many such success stories. But the situation in Gaza is much harder now because the people cannot leave the Strip. Even if they obtain scholastic scholarships they cannot leave Gaza or obtain a travel visa. But there are many success stories of students that graduated from UNRWA schools and are now working as managers and businessmen. They say: Yes, we are refugees, and we grew up in the camps and with UNRWA. Jordan is a similar case; many prominent government officials there graduated from UNRWA schools. We find such cases almost everywhere in the world.

Q) What is the percentage of higher education graduates or university graduates in Gaza and the West Bank?

A) I do not know, but what I do know is that in Gaza many students enroll in university education and even in postgraduate education because there is no work. In other words, if you graduate from high school or university and find nothing to do, you go to the MA level or the PhD level and so on. There are many universities in Gaza.

Q) Is the impression that the economic conditions in Gaza drive people to leave school or college and seek work?

A) Yes, perhaps, but there is no workforce in Gaza at present. There are no jobs and not even an economy in the true sense of the word. If you do not have work, you head for education. Of course, if you do not have a college degree you can find manual work somewhere or with UNRWA’s employment program that gives three-month work sessions. But if you are looking for a suitable employment, you will not find it because there is no economy in Gaza, especially after the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the destruction of every single factory or workshop of the private sector. If there are no outlets for export or import, there is no economy. All the activities are now tied to the aid.

Q) You will be leaving your post in December. Do you have any idea on who will succeed you in your post?

A) I have an excellent deputy among the candidates for the position (Italian national Filippo Grandi) who can be an excellent UNRWA commissioner general.

Q) Is the position of UNRWA commissioner general a political one? Is a political consensus required on who occupies this position?

A) No, any country may nominate a candidate to fill this position. The UN secretary-general is very transparent regarding this appointment. He has sent more than190 letters to the UN member states asking: Is there someone you wish to nominate for this post? As far as I know, a number of persons have submitted their candidacy, but my deputy was nominated by his government. He will be interviewed regarding this position as happens with all the appointments made by the UN secretary general.

Q) Do your emotions sometimes prevail over your work?

A) Yes, this is a humanitarian work, and it arouses emotions, especially when I remember that I am about to leave.

Q) Do you expect to cry when you leave your position?

A) Yes, I do, but I hope it will not be in front of people (she laughs). It will be very hard for me. When I worked in the UNRWA commissariat, I did not spend more than one or two years in any particular country. But I have been in Gaza for more than nine years and I have developed many relations with the people. It will be very hard for me to leave. Naturally, this region of the world becomes in your blood.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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