Statement by H.E. Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Special Representative of H.E. Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine, and Member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, before UNRWA 65th Anniversary High-Level Conference: Sustaining Human Development and Protecting Rights of Palestine Refugees, 2 June 2015, New York

I am honored to represent H.E. President Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine, at this High-Level Conference.  I thank H.E. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his keynote statement and firm support of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – UNRWA.  We also express our thanks to the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Mr. Pierre Krähenbühl, for his statement and for chairing this important Conference.

I also express appreciation to H.E. Mr. Christos Stylianides, European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, and H.E. Mr. Hans Dahlgren, State Secretary for Foreign and EU Affairs to the Prime Minister of Sweden for their presences on this occasion, and to all delegations joining us here today.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is with both sorrow and gratitude that the Palestinian people commemorate the sixty-fifth anniversary of UNRWA.

In May of this year, we solemnly marked the passage of 67 years since Al-Nakba.  May 1948, and the dark months that preceded it, witnessed the violent and catastrophic uprooting and displacement of the Palestinian people from their homeland, Palestine.  More than 530 Palestinian towns and villages – entire homes, communities and cultural heritage – were destroyed by Israeli militias and the army of the State of Israel during Al-Nakba and more than 70 massacres were perpetrated, in which at least 15,000 Palestinians were killed.  800,000 Palestinians, children, women and men constituting more than half of the Palestinian population, were expelled or forced to flee from their homeland in fear for their lives.  Dispossessed and dispersed in the remainder of their homeland and to neighboring countries in the region, mainly to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, they became refugees, whose plight continues until this day as they continue to be denied their right to return to live at peace with their neighbors and to obtain compensation for their losses, as called for decades ago by the UN General Assembly in resolution 194 (III).

The majority of the Palestine refugees, comprising more than 5.3 million people and now spanning four generations, continue to endure grave hardships and deprivation, stemming from their original uprooting, with many suffering repeated displacement and affronts to their human security through successive crises and conflicts.  Yet, they have persevered and remained steadfast in their calls for fulfillment of their rights, including the right to return to their ancestral land.

Al-Nakba has been a defining moment in the history of Palestine and the history of the UN. This injustice – unresolved and festering for nearly seven decades – remains a painful wound in Palestinian hearts and psyche and in our region’s landscape, and remains at the core of the Palestinian struggle for peace, justice and freedom.  Indeed, despite enduring the longest occupation in modern history and despite nearly seven decades of exile endured by millions of Palestine refugees, their national identity remains strong and their conviction in the justness of their cause remains unwavering as they seek to realize their long-denied, inalienable rights.

In that quest for peace and justice, the UN role has been central.  We recognize this as part of the permanent responsibility towards the question of Palestine until it is justly resolved in all its aspects, including the refugee question – a responsibility enshrined and reaffirmed in countless resolutions and upheld in daily UN work in various fields in support of the Palestinian people.

UNRWA has been at the forefront of this endeavor. From the outset of operations in 1950, following its establishment by resolution 302 (IV), assistance was extended in a comprehensive and humane manner to the hundreds of thousands of Palestine refugees left destitute following the 1948 war.  That mission continues, as a just solution for the Palestine refugees and peaceful settlement to the conflict remain elusive. UNRWA remains a lifeline for millions of Palestine refugees, providing education, healthcare, social and relief programs, opportunities for work, growth and development, as well as protection and emergency aid in times of crisis.  Even beyond its immediate mandate, UNRWA is also recognized as a stabilizing factor in the region.

Today, we gather to commemorate 65 years of exceptional humanitarian and development work by UNRWA, to commend its achievements, to recognize its place in the long journey of the Palestine refugees and the many challenges it faces in meeting their needs in an environment of great instability and constant financial shortfalls, and to recommit to supporting the Agency’s mission and advancing a just solution for the Palestine refugees in the context of a lasting peace.

For 65 years, UNRWA has been led by highly dedicated Commissioners-General, Deputies and Field Directors and international staff, along with a committed national staff of at least 30,000 in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Occupied Palestine carrying out the Agency’s indispensable work. We express deep appreciation to Commissioner-General Krähenbühl for leading the Agency with such integrity and skill and, through him, express our sincere gratitude to UNRWA’s entire staff for their tireless efforts. I wish to also recognize among us today former Commissioner-General Karen Abu Zayd and thank her for her years of service.

Here, we further recognize the sacrifices of the UNRWA’s Palestinian national staff, who serve in unstable and precarious conditions, often endangering their lives in order to ensure the continuity of support to the refugees in all circumstances under occupation and in exile.  We pay tribute to the staff members whose lives were taken this past year in attacks by the Israeli occupying forces in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, as well as those killed in the ongoing tragic conflict in Syria, and we reiterate our condolences to their families and UNRWA colleagues.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

UNRWA reflects the best of what the UN can do in a global context where the political will for promoting real solutions is regrettably all-too-often lacking, necessitating long-term support to affected populations.  With principle, compassion and commitment, UNRWA has exemplified the tangible difference the UN makes in the lives of millions of people around the world, particularly the vulnerable suffering from man-made and natural crises, embodying the principles of international humanitarian law in action.  It has done so through a unique combination of international stewardship and national capacity as well as a refined synergy between humanitarian assistance, protection and human development.  In this way, with the support of the Host Countries and the international donor community, UNRWA has met immediate needs while also promoting development, advocating for rights and preserving human dignity.

Numerous Palestine refugees have given heart-warming accounts of the special role UNRWA has played in their lives, and we look forward to hearing testimonies today from among the millions that UNRWA has assisted over the decades, including the children it educates; the youth to whom it gives training and job opportunities; the mothers who receive maternal and infant care at its health centers; the women and men who benefit from its microfinance programs to support their families; the abject poor whose subsistence it ensures; the displaced it shelters; the Bedouin refugees it advocates for in the face of forced transfer due to the encroachment of the illegal Israeli settlements and wall; and the most vulnerable it protects and aids in periods of conflict.  UNRWA has helped the refugees lead healthy lives and be productive members of their communities, not just passive aid recipients; most significantly, however, it has provided them with that rare commodity of hope and fortitude in the search for justice and the promise of a better future.

The power of hope in the context of human resilience should not be underestimated. We recognize with humility and deepest respect the resilience of the Palestine refugees, a resilience rightly recognized as legendary.  Yet, as starkly shown in these past months, that resilience is not inexhaustible, and, as waves of crisis plague the region, the lives and fate of so many Palestine refugees have been thrown into turmoil.

The plight of the refugees in the Yarmouk camp in Syria has come to symbolize this heartbreaking tragedy.  Yarmouk, where Palestine refugees have peaceably resided for more than 60 years awaiting a just solution, has been ravaged by war and siege, come under barbaric assault of Da’esh, and been described by the Secretary-General as “the deepest circle of hell,” with children, women, men and the elderly forced to flee for their lives, traumatized yet again. Such anguish is the backdrop for the flight of more refugees to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, among others, and for the journeys of despair across the Mediterranean Sea being taken by Palestine refugees along with other migrants. In their attempts to escape the horrors of war and poverty that continue to be inflicted on them, many would rather face the threat of death by drowning rather than the torturous life-sapping misery they have been forced to endure.

The successive Israeli wars, Israeli blockade and massive devastation and carnage inflicted on the Palestinian civilian population in the Gaza Strip further underscore this existential crisis.  There, Palestine refugees have been among the thousands subjected to merciless killing, injury and maiming by the Israeli occupying forces in their homes, UN schools, playgrounds and hospitals, in addition to the destruction of their homes, public institutions, infrastructure and neighborhoods. While they have yet to recover from this trauma and humanitarian disaster, they continue to endure the grave impact of a dehumanizing siege that is crippling their society, forcing them to live in poverty in the ruins of their communities, isolating them from the world, exhausting their coping abilities and draining them of hope.  We will continue to appeal and work for the urgent alleviation of their plight, reconstruction of Gaza, and lifting of the siege. We will also seek accountability for the crimes that have been perpetrated against them and against Palestine as a whole.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On this occasion, we must also reaffirm our deep appreciation to all Host Countries and States that have offered assistance to the refugees, particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.  We fully recognize their support for the refugees and for UNRWA’s work and the burden they have shouldered over the decades.  This is of special significance given the painful upheavals and unbridled violence threatening the security and stability of many countries in our region.

The role of the international donor community is also recognized with deepest gratitude, especially the major donors Members and Observers of the Advisory Commission, whose generous funding and support for UNRWA’s mandate has sustained its mission. Donors’ voluntary contributions have been key for the uninterrupted provision of assistance in the five fields of operation from the start, despite repeated calamities and severe funding gaps.  We are grateful for donor support to the core budget as well as emergency appeals. We stress that all support – monetary and in-kind, from donors large and small, traditional and new, from all corners of the globe – is meaningful and essential. We also express thanks to all UN agencies and international humanitarian organizations partnering with UNRWA to provide care for our people. It is indeed this partnership that has made possible this unique and effective synergy between humanitarian assistance and human development.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As the Palestine refugees and UNRWA continue to face formidable challenges, we appeal again to the international community to renew the commitment to bring an end to this tragedy with the realization of a just solution to the plight of the Palestine refugees, in accord with international law and relevant UN resolutions, foremost resolution 194 (III).  The rights of the Palestine refugees cannot be abrogated and cannot be perpetually denied.  This remains one of the highest priorities for the Palestinian people and leadership and is a core issue that must be resolved for the conclusion of a final peace settlement.  Indeed, a just solution for the refugee question is imperative for Palestinian-Israeli peace as well as comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, as indicated in the Arab Peace Initiative.

The time is way overdue for international action to resolve the largest and most protracted refugee problem in modern history.  The time has come to exert the political will necessary to end the illegal and cruel Israeli military occupation of our land and for the Palestinian people to realize their inalienable human rights and to achieve the peace and justice that finally will allow our people, including the Palestine refugees, to live in freedom, dignity and security.

The PLO remains fully committed to the achievement of a genuine peace based on international law and the imperatives of justice. We have sought multilateralism and the global rule of law, as evidenced by our recent accessions to international conventions and treaties, and have persistently tried to rescue the two-State solution, despite the Israeli Government’s willful and destructive efforts to superimpose “Greater Israel” on all of historical Palestine.  There can be no partial or transitional or inequitable solutions. We welcome all individual and collective initiatives affirming the commitment of the international community to a just peace and to ending the occupation within a specified and binding timeframe. The State of Palestine is yearning for release from its protracted captivity and the exile and subjugation of its people. It longs to join the community of nations as an equal—a free and sovereign State on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. You have the instruments, the means and the will to make it happen!

On behalf of the Palestinian people as a whole, I thank you all for your participation, support and solidarity on this important occasion.