Statement by Ms. Feda Abdelhady-Nasser, Ambassador, Deputy Permanent Observer, before Special Political and Decolonization Committee (4th Committee), Agenda Item 54: UNRWA, 9 November 2015:

Mr. Chair,

I wish to reaffirm our appreciation to Mr. Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), for his report and briefing on UNRWA’s work over the past year, a year that once again witnessed turmoil gravely affecting Palestine refugees. We also thank him for his leadership and compelling advocacy on behalf of the Palestine refugees, their rights, needs and dignity in theses challenging times that are compounding the suffering, insecurity and existential fears of the refugees.

Today, we also renew appreciation to the Deputy Commissioner-General, the Directors of Field Operations in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to UNRWA’s entire staff – national and international – for their tireless efforts to fulfill the Agency’s mandate through provision of education, health care, relief, emergency assistance and protection to the Palestine refugees, along with a constant measure of stability and hope. We recognize their dedication and courage in the context of a volatile environment and the personal challenges and risks many of them face, as the majority of the staff are Palestine refugees themselves.

In this regard, we regret the fact that Palestinian staff members of UNRWA remain the only UN staff in the area not entitled to hazard pay and appeal again for this issue to be fairly redressed.  We pay tribute to their sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifice of loss of life in the line of duty, and humanitarian service to their people, both in exile and under occupation, over the long decades.

Mr. Chair,

As we mark the UN’s 70th anniversary this year, we also commemorate the 65th anniversary of UNRWA.  The Agency, established by General Assembly resolution 302 (IV) in 1949, is nearly as old as the organization itself, reminding us again that the question of Palestine has been on the UN agenda since its inception.  The Palestine refugee problem constitutes a core issue of the question of Palestine that must be justly resolved, based on resolution 194 (III), if a just, lasting, comprehensive peace is ever to become a reality, a commitment pledged by the international community and which we continue to seek and appeal for responsible, collective and urgent action to realize.

The escalation of tensions and steep deterioration of the political, security, socio-economic and humanitarian situation that we witness today are manifestations of this injustice that has persisted for nearly seven decades, becoming more inhumane, more tragic and more perilous with the passage of time.  This reality is harshly reflected in the situation of the Palestine refugees, who for generations have been denied their fundamental right to return to live at peace with their neighbors and to just compensation and whose plight continues.  The majority of the more than 5.3 million refugees registered with UNRWA remain in camps that had been established as temporary shelters throughout the region, enduring constant instability, conflicts and deprivation.

Successive crises have deepened Palestine refugees’ vulnerability, inflicting repeated displacement and dispossession, death and injury, rising poverty and unemployment, and now, the fragmentation of their communities, in spite of decades of cohesion since onset of their plight in the 1948 Al-Nakba. This fragmentation is undermining their resilience and reaching the level of an existential crisis.  The Commissioner-General has attested to this crisis as have the tragic stories of so many refugee families, who after years of patient steadfastness, are struggling for survival.

The identity and resilience of the Palestine refugees are at risk, as for the first time in decades they have been forced to leave the region, fleeing the ravages of war and poverty in search of ever-elusive human security and a better life for their families, a universal hope and desire.  This phenomenon is especially stark in Syria amid continuation of the catastrophic conflict there, with its massive spillover into Lebanon and Jordan, and in Occupied Palestine, including East Jerusalem, where refugee communities are disproportionately impacted by the brutalities and indignities of the Israeli occupation.

Today’s refugee and migrant crisis has brought into painful focus the misery of what it means to be a refugee, a term many have become inured to when it comes to the Palestine refugees and the plight of the children, women and men whose fate it is to be a refugee. The crisis impacting the region and Europe in particular includes Palestine refugees among the millions of civilians fleeing Syria and further underscores the urgent need for humane solutions that are based on international law, including humanitarian and human rights law, and that address root causes. While political will must be mobilized to address the immediate refugee crisis, comprehensive solutions also require addressing the historic plight of the Palestine refugees and the pervasive human insecurity, turmoil and sense of injustice this has fueled across generations, across our region and around the globe.

Rectifying this injustice remains at the core of Palestine’s search for peace. Before proceeding, I therefore reaffirm the centrality of the following rights for a just solution: 1) the right of the Palestine refugees to return and to just compensation for their losses and suffering, based on resolution 194 (III) and relevant provisions of international law; and 2) the right of the Palestinians displaced in June 1967 to return to their homes and lands, as per relevant UN resolutions and the mechanism agreed by the parties over 22 years ago.

Israeli rejection of these rights and rhetoric minimizing the importance of a just solution for the Palestine refugee issue for the achievement of peace are irresponsible, provocative and must be denounced.  It is another reminder of Israel’s total disrespect of human rights and failure to commit to even the most basic principles required for making peace. The international community must demand compliance by Israel with its legal obligations, under the Charter, international law and relevant resolutions, and it cannot be allowed to continue obstructing peace without consequence.

Mr. Chair,

For 65 years UNRWA has fostered the well-being and human development of the Palestine refugees and provided a necessary measure of protection, while also constituting a factor of stability in the region.  UNRWA assistance exemplifies the nexus between meaningful humanitarian assistance and development, showing that basic needs can be fulfilled while also building human capital and preserving rights and dignity, even in times of conflict and crisis.  UNRWA should be strongly commended and supported for its work and its history of experience provides an important model in this era of sustainable development for all, which should also be considered and prioritized in the context of international humanitarian aid, including for refugees and displaced persons, who cannot be excluded from the betterment of our societies, as embodied in the 2030 SDGs.

In the absence of a just solution, UNRWA remains indispensable. As vividly reaffirmed during the crises of past summers, UNRWA programs tangibly make a difference in the lives of the Palestine refugees, whether the children it educates; the youth it gives opportunity to through its job creation program; the women and men relying on its microfinance programs to support their families; the mothers and children benefiting from its maternal health program; the abject poor whose sustenance it ensures with food and cash assistance; the displaced it shelters, the most vulnerable it protects, and those in need of emergency aid, helping them persevere and, in many cases, even thrive, despite all odds, and sustaining them with hope.

None of this can be taken for granted. Indeed, the recent risks posed to the Agency’s education program for 685 schools and 8 vocational centers stoked deep anxieties among refugee children and their families, as well as UNRWA staff, host countries and donors.  At the prospect of schools remaining closed at the start of a new year, the future began to look even bleaker for a half million school children and thousands of youth and real fears and despair were widely expressed.

At a time when the rest of the globe is stressing the centrality of education for sustainable development and for the peace and security of nations, including for pushing back against the threat of extremism, it would be tragic and unacceptable to leave behind Palestine refugee children, denying them their right to education and exposing them to the dangers that inherently arise from lack of access to education.  We thus commend the Agency’s immediate mobilization at the highest levels to avert this crisis and the collective efforts to secure adequate resources for this core program.

The strong donor response to the unprecedented financial crisis in August 2015 was crucial to covering the funding gap and enabling opening of the schools and reconfirmed the shared view of the importance of UNRWA’s humanitarian mission. Moreover, the reaffirmations of support at the 26 September 2015 high-level meeting, chaired by Jordan and Sweden, on the sustainability of UNRWA financing and the early convening of the annual pledging conference reflected the high degree of international responsibility in this regard.  We are grateful to the host and donor countries for their efforts to address the Agency’s financial and operational challenges and support its mandate, despite widespread instability and rising humanitarian needs in all fields of operation.  Every contribution to UNRWA is vital, and we appeal for consistent, sufficient support for its core programs to avert recurrence of such crises.

Mr. Chair,

From Rafah to Jabalia, Aida to Balata, Irbid to Zarqa, Yarmouk to Homs, Ein el-Hilweh to Nahr el-Bared, in each of UNRWA’s 58 camps, the needs are real and the dreams of one generation and hopes of another for justice and a free, dignified life hang in the balance. Even a brief review of UNRWA’s fields of operation in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, reflects the serious challenges and plight of the Palestine refugees.

In the Gaza Strip, where the majority of the civilian population is comprised of Palestine refugees, the impact of successive Israeli wars and Israel’s eight-year blockade has been vastly debilitating.  Refugees were among the thousands of Palestinian children, women and men subjected to killing, injury and maiming by the Israeli occupying forces in their homes, as well as in UNRWA schools, the destruction of their homes, property and infrastructure, and massive displacement in July/August 2014.  While they have yet to recover from that trauma and humanitarian disaster and while reconstruction continues to be obstructed and delayed despite the “temporary reconstruction mechanism”, the refugees face the onset of another winter under the dehumanizing blockade, which is crippling their society, with poverty and unemployment rampant – a shocking 60% for youth, and forcing them to live in the ruins of their communities, isolating them from the world, exhausting their coping abilities and deepening despair, prompting many on a desperate search for an alternative to this life of misery away from the region.

We fully recognize the central role UNRWA plays in alleviating the suffering of the Palestine refugees and other civilians in Gaza and the multiple challenges and tragedies in this regard have been fully documented by UNRWA.  But humanitarian aid alone is not enough; the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza must be lifted.  This is critical for alleviating the plight of our people there and allowing for some semblance of a normal life, albeit under occupation. Moreover, justice is imperative for healing wounds and we continue to demand accountability for the crimes perpetrated against them, including in follow-up of the findings of the Secretary-General’s Board of Inquiry and the Human Rights Council’s independent commissions of inquiry.

In the West Bank, Palestine refugees continue to suffer socio-economic difficulties and violations of their human rights by Israel, the occupying Power, and its extremist settlers.  The refugees also continue to endure forced displacement, with Bedouin communities most impacted in the recent period.  As reported, in 2014 alone, 411 refugees were displaced by home demolitions and 150 refugee structures were demolished. The majority of the nineteen refugee camps in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, have also been directly affected by the recent violent escalation and persistent severe movement restrictions, impairing access to schools, hospitals, jobs and markets.

Israeli occupying forces carry out near daily raids on the camps, killing and injuring innocent Palestinians, including children, starkly highlighting the need for international protection for the Palestinian people in a situation where the occupying Power not only grossly violates its legal obligations under the 4th Geneva Convention, but has clearly abdicated those responsibilities and is the direct source of the occupied population’s insecurity and suffering.  As in Gaza, the turmoil across the camps in the West Bank, where another generation is begging for freedom and justice, reminds again of the urgency of addressing the underlying issues and root causes and of bringing the nearly half-century Israeli occupation to an end.

In Jordan, host to more than 2 million Palestine refugees, social and economic difficulties continue to affect the refugee community. Such difficulties are increasing with the influx of more refugees from Syria, heightening the burden on UNRWA and on Jordan’s resources and infrastructure.  Overall, however, despite the volatility in the region, we are relieved that the situation of the Palestine refugees in Jordan has remained stable.

In Lebanon, the spillover of the Syria crisis has exacerbated the situation of Palestine refugees, who continue to face marginalization, high poverty and unemployment, and other socio-economic ills, including overcrowding in the camps, compounded by the thousands of refugees that have come from Syria.  We urge continuation of UNRWA efforts to ameliorate camp conditions.  We reiterate our appeals for implementation of the legislation to facilitate Palestine refugee access to the Lebanese labor market to help address severe poverty.  We also appeal for donor support to UNRWA efforts to complete the reconstruction of the Nahr el-Bared camp, from which thousands of refugee families remain displaced since 2007.

In Syria, as reported by the Commissioner-General, the ongoing conflict has impacted the entire Palestine refugee population there.  Palestine refugees have suffered death and injury and destruction of shelters and 95% of the Palestine refugees in Syria have become reliant on UNRWA to meet minimum needs.  Sieges and access restrictions have inflicted deep deprivation on the Palestine refugees, including those remaining in the Yarmouk camp, which has come to symbolize the tragedy of the Palestine refugees in this crisis.

More than 60% of the Palestine refugees have been displaced at least once inside Syria, while 80,000 have been displaced to other countries, primarily to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt and farther afield as many have attempted the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea with other refugees seeking to escape the horrors of war.  While sharing the global hopes for an urgent political solution to the Syrian conflict, we stress the urgency of addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis.  We also continue to call for neutrality of the camps, deeply regretting any events to contrary, and for the protection of civilians and safe, unimpeded humanitarian access by UNRWA and other partners.  We again recognize the countries providing refuge, aware of the instability and strain caused by this situation, and appeal for open borders and non-discrimination.

Mr. Chair,

We are grateful for the principled international political, financial and moral support and solidarity for the Palestine refugees.  At the forefront, we recognize the crucial support of the Host Countries – Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – for the refugee communities they have hosted for decades and for their facilitation of UNRWA’s mission and continuing cooperation.

We also again recognize the invaluable support of the donor community, including those playing special roles as the Members and Observers of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission and the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA, thanking Norway for its presentation today of the Working Group report. We appreciate the generosity of traditional, major donors as well as of new and emerging donors, including governments, inter-governmental organizations, NGOs and individuals, hoping these contributions can become regular support. We appeal for support to both UNRWA’s General Fund and emergency appeals and urge multi-year contributions where possible. We fully support Agency efforts to diversify the donor base and strengthen partnerships and hope for the success of its Medium-Term Strategy.

Mr. Chair,

In closing, Palestine reiterates deep gratitude to UNRWA and all UN agencies and humanitarian organizations working together to assist the Palestine refugees.  While UNRWA’s humanitarian assistance, human development work and protection for the Palestine refugees remains necessary pending a just solution, we must reiterate our urgent call for serious efforts to attain that just solution.  And that solution must justly address the Palestine refugee question, which remains among the highest priorities for the Palestinian leadership and is one of the keys to peace.

We thus stress the pressing need to secure a credible political horizon to address all core final status issues and urge the international community to mobilize the political will required to help the parties realize a just, lasting and comprehensive solution, in accordance with the Charter, international law, the relevant UN resolutions, and the Arab Peace Initiative, by which the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people, including the Palestine refugees, can finally be fulfilled and peace achieved.  This is a matter of political, humanitarian and moral urgency, for freedom and justice can no longer be delayed and cannot forever be denied.

I thank you, Mr. Chair.