E.g., 10/03/2023
E.g., 10/03/2023
Interview with UNRWA Deputy Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd

Interview with UNRWA Deputy Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd

The Palestinian refugee population is one of the world's oldest and largest, and poses enduring challenges to international aid organizations. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which serves more than 3.9 million Palestinian refugees, has been at the center of relief efforts since its establishment in 1949. The Source asked Karen Koning AbuZayd, an Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations who has been UNRWA's Deputy Commissioner-General since August 2000, to give her perspective on the current crisis.

Before getting into the latest obstacles UNRWA faces, could you tell us a little about the organization's mandate?

UNRWA was set up to serve Palestinian refugees; meaning, for our purposes, people whose "normal" place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost their homes and jobs as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Of course, that includes their descendants. This description fits about 3.9 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

About two-thirds of these people live in towns and cities, and the rest are in one of 59 refugee camps -- though I have to emphasize that we don't actually run any of these camps. The camps are not like most people's concept of a refugee camp; they look like many poor urban neighborhoods that have grown up on the fringes of larger towns and cities. The camp authorities vary from place to place, and our job is to make sure that services are in place to help people in need. Since there's chronic poverty in the camps, as well as other issues such as overcrowding, we have a lot of work to do.

What services does UNRWA provide?

We have four major program areas: education, health, social services, and micro-finance and micro-enterprise. These are run by 23,000 local staff and about 100 international staff.

"...we've just been trying to bring in enough food so that people can eat, and working on providing shelter, and keeping the education system running, and providing short-term jobs."

In education, we support almost 550 schools, which mostly run in double shifts to accommodate all the students -- over half a million of them. In terms of health services, we have 125 clinics, which were working at capacity even before the second Intifada began in September 2000. Most doctors were responsible for seeing more than 100 patients a day, and now, as you can imagine, they have to see more.

Our micro-finance program was self-sufficient until recently, and we have disbursed almost 50,000 loans worth US$69 million since the start of the program. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where most of the loans were made, it was the largest and most successful program of its kind in the world. Now, of course, we're facing serious problems.

We've been providing relief and social services all along, including food aid. Primarily, we set out to provide things like food and shelter to families where there's no household member who is able to earn an income, and there's no outside income. But since the second Intifada began, things have gotten harder for everyone, since over 100,000 families have lost their income from daily wage labor in Israel. Therefore, we've had to distribute food to 127,500 families in the Gaza Strip and 90,000 families in the West Bank. Before the renewed conflict, 6 percent of those under UNRWA's mandate required emergency assistance; that number has since risen to 80 percent in the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, our funding has decreased, because of austerity budgets, from US$200 per refugee per year in the 1970s to US$70 per refugee per year today.

Besides the emergency food aid I mentioned, UNRWA is working on shelter programs to help repair much of the damage caused by recent Israeli incursions into the West Bank. A lot of the needed infrastructure repairs are being done by unemployed Palestinians through UNRWA-sponsored temporary work programs. These programs typically last three months and are spread around various locations in order to help as many people as possible. We're careful to ensure that the programs are constructive and not just "make-work" activities.

What other changes has the last year brought?

There are rather dreadful changes. Just before the Intifada began, I arrived in Gaza with the thought that I was being sent there because of many years of experience working with the UNHCR, in order to use my expertise with finding durable solutions for refugee problems. Instead, with the Intifada, I was back to emergency work. Much of UNRWA's work in the West Bank and Gaza has been diverted to emergency response.

"One of our biggest concerns is that of safe humanitarian access, in terms of freedom of movement and security of both people and goods."

The immediate effect of Israel's closure of its borders after the start of the Intifada, in terms of the Palestinians who formerly worked there, was that over 100,000 families saw their family members lose their jobs in Israel. So already in the first weeks, I saw a lot of empty cupboards. That means we've just been trying to bring in enough food so that people can eat, and working on providing shelter, and keeping the education system running, and providing short-term jobs.

However, things have gotten worse and worse as the months have gone by. The incursions and destruction have become worse -- from starting small, now it's major exchanges of fire, and shelling and bombs. What's interesting to me is what we begin to accept as normal. The first time [an Israeli military] helicopter was hovering over us it was frightening. Then when the F-16s arrived we were horrified, because you don't really know where they're going to hit by accident. Now when we hear helicopters and planes, we simply carry on with whatever we're doing and wait until we're told to get down to the ground floor.

What are some of the specific effects of the conflict on the Palestinian refugees?

Doctors are becoming increasingly overbooked, and the lack of resources have forced many people who would ordinarily go to private doctors to use UNRWA facilities instead, resulting in overcrowding.

Also, restrictions on the movement of goods are having a negative effect. In some cases, farmers are forced to sell their crops at abnormally low prices, because they are unable to ship them outside of the territories and have to get rid of them before they rot. On the other hand, goods that should normally be shipped in, such as fuel, are extremely scarce and thus far more expensive than many residents can afford. Many people have been forced to sell nearly all their possessions in order to keep their families fed.

The destruction of many of the institutions run by the Palestinian Authority has also been problematic. This is true for the Palestinians themselves, since the previously well-functioning ministries of health and education, for example, have been targeted in Israeli raids. It's also true for international and non-governmental organizations such as UNRWA that rely on these ministries and departments -- such as the statistics department -- for useful information. A great many irreplaceable records and computer files have been destroyed.

As a result of the ongoing violence and the distractions of school closures, etc., the traditionally high pass rate for students in UNRWA schools has been declining. There is a strong need for compensatory education such as summer school as well as for other structured activities to keep students away from the violence as much as possible. Psychological counseling is also needed.

You have extensive experience working with refugees in place like the Sudan, Namibia, and Bosnia -- do you see any parallel between earlier international efforts to help refugees and the work of UNRWA?

The parallels aren't too clear. But, for example, when we met with [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell, we told him that in all of our years of working in conflict situations, even with so-called "rogue states," of all the interlocutors we've worked with, the Israelis are the most intransigent. They seem to feel they can do anything in the name of security, because their security fears are very real. Even the Serbs were terrified of the International Criminal Court. It's not the same with the Israelis.

You've been quoted as saying that most Palestinians are innocent victims of the current crisis who deserve humanitarian help. What are the most positive steps the international community could take at this juncture to ease the situation?

We would like to have UNRWA's emergency appeal fully funded, so we can meet the needs of the people we serve. We would like to see people back at the negotiating table, too. It's not the wish of every Palestinian now -- but the ones we work with would just like to be able to support their families. We'd like to see a bigger international presence, and [UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan is calling for an international force. We feel if people were there watching, a lot of what's happening couldn't happen. A lot of what happens at the checkpoints is so humiliating, but there is less misbehavior when someone is watching.

To what extent do you feel that the Israeli government perceives UNRWA as preventing a wider social explosion, or conversely as an obstacle that prevents them from dealing with the Palestinian refugees however they'd like to?

We believe the Israelis understand that we help bring stability, though there are certainly Israelis who feel they'd be better off without UNRWA because "there would be no refugees." But we tell them, certainly there would be refugees with or without the agency's existing.

It's worth noting that UNRWA has no police or intelligence services. It has never been implicated in violence. When our local staff members have been caught up in security sweeps, they have almost always been released; during the current hostilities, at this moment, e.g., there are only 15 detentions and a single conviction. When staff members are in custody, UNRWA always inquires about the charges and evidence, even though we have never had a reply from the Israeli police.

Recently, members of our legal department, some of whom have been dealing with the Israeli authorities for 30 years, have been saying they feel there is a change in our communications and relations with Israeli authorities, and this creates a big problem. We've been practically cut off. The only time the Israeli authorities returned our calls recently was when there was the possibility of a UN fact-finding mission [to investigate the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp]. They returned all our calls that week; people I'd never heard from before were calling me. But it looks like they've decided to make things difficult for UNRWA right now.

Even though UN staff members are supposed to have diplomatic access, a great deal of time is taken up in just obtaining permits and negotiating humanitarian access at each checkpoint. Obtaining such permits for local UNRWA staff is becoming more and more difficult and is affecting staffing levels, particularly for those who reside in the West Bank and are supposed to work in Jerusalem. As a result, we're attempting to shift some of the staff in order to allow people to work as close to home as possible, and hopefully ease problems of movement to some degree.

One of our biggest concerns is that of safe humanitarian access, in terms of freedom of movement and security of both people and goods. We understand that the West Bank may soon be divided into eight separate cantons, each with its own security perimeters and checkpoints through which shipments will have to pass repeatedly -- in other words, all trucks will have to be unloaded and reloaded at every checkpoint. Currently there are 79 checkpoints and 119 roadblocks in the West Bank, and their locations are constantly changing. This prevents any type of advance planning for transportation, even for humanitarian goods.