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UNRWA: "You can’t leave Palestine refugees behind"

There is no doubt in my mind that you cannot have a just and durable peace unless 4.8 million refugees are brought out of their 63-year exile, statelessness and dispossession.
— Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman, 20 June 2011

Roee Ruttenberg: Can you tell us a little bit about the current state of the Palestinian refugees, specifically vis-à-vis the what they are seeing around the region in the so-called “Arab Spring?”

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: The situation is quite different in a number of states or territories. In Syria, for example, there’s great upheaval, though by and large UNRWA refugees have managed to keep their heads below the unrest. But one of is of course very nervous about the security situation in the camps. In Jordan, too, there’s been unrest. But by and large it’s not really affected the refugees. In Lebanon, they have a particular problem which is access to the labor markets. So you saw how despite the change in legislation, the refugees don’t have the access to jobs that they should, so they basically empty the bins and do jobs that the lowest of the lows do. Even qualified doctors and nurses – they can work for UNRWA but they can’t work in the public or private sector in Lebanon itself. In Gaza, of course, the blockade has now gone into its fifth year. It’s a collective punishment – 1.5 million people, a million of whom are refugees, 54% of whom are children – under blockade are being collectively punished. And in the West Bank we are seeing the occupation continuing to erode the long-term economy of the refugees. So things are very different depending on where the refugees are in the region.

Palestinian refugees flee to Lebanon, late 1948 (Photo: Gnuckx, CC license)

Palestinian refugees flee to Lebanon, late 1948 (Photo: Gnuckx, CC license)

Roee Ruttenberg: What about the Palestinian territories. You have Palestinian refugees and non-refugees. What is the distinction?

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: (UNRWA) has just come out with an economic report – survey of the jobs market – which shows that in the West Bank there are about 750,000 refugees, and long-term there are real structural problems. They are slipping further and further into poverty, into food insecurity, and that’s very largely because of the occupation in the West Banks, hundreds of Israeli checkpoints which cut them off from their markets, from their lands, from their traditional water sources. In Gaza, it’s very much about the blockade. We now have a situation where, comparing now with pre-blockade levels, we are getting in about 40% of what we need. UNRWA is trying to build a hundred schools in Gaza, and yet a relatively small fraction of those projects have been approved (by the Israelis). So we are waiting for the Israeli government to realize that the only people who are really benefitting in Gaza are Hamas. That’s not in Israel’s interest. What we want to see is a fully lifting of the blockade in accordance to the “Agreement on Movement and Access” which foresees both exports coming out of Gaza and raw materials coming into Gaza, which people can make some of, which creates jobs.

Roee Ruttenberg: The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that he will declare an independent Palestinian state via the UN and will ask the UN for its support and recognition when the General Assembly meets in September. What are the implications of that for Palestinian refugees, specifically in the Palestinian territories?

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: We hope that the implications will be enormous. We hope that as the Palestinians move, apparently, towards a declaration of statehood, they’ll realize that the refugees have to have some place in the political order. And I think the Arab Spring has shown that people are crying out for social and political inclusion, for an end to injustice. You can’t leave the Palestine refugees behind. So I hope that the declaration of statehood will bring forward some political bravery, some commitment and some courage from the decision-makers, from the statesmen of this world. Because there is no doubt in my mind that you cannot have a just and durable peace unless 4.8 million refugees are brought out of their 63-year exile, statelessness and dispossession.

10. Shuafat Refugee Camp Checkpoint. 13:14PM (Photo: Mairav Zonszein)

Roee Ruttenberg: There are critics who say the UN treats the Palestinians with some favoritism, that the Palestinians refugees have their own UN agency – your agency, UNRWA – dedicated specifically to their cause, something no other group has. And just this week, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the international community treats the Palestinians like “spoiled children.” How do you respond to such criticisms?

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: It’s very vindictive and its political wishful-thinking because if UNRWA went away and UNHCR took over the refugees, their inalienable rights would not disappear. So the right of return, which is enshrined in the “Universal Declaration (of Human Rights)” wouldn’t suddenly go away because UNRWA went away. No. All internationally-accepted paradigms for solving this conflict say that the future plight of the Palestine refugees has to be resolved in a just and durable solution. Only then will UNRWA start talking about handing over its services and disappearing. That’s how the world has posited the end of the refugees problem, and that’s how the General Assembly sees it. If Israel or anyone else sees differently, they’ll have to go to the General Assembly and get that changed, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

*** note: the above is a transcript for an interview that aired on CCTV News on Monday, 20 June 2011

There is no doubt in my mind that you cannot have a just and durable peace unless 4.8 million refugees are brought out of their 63-year exile, statelessness and dispossession.
— Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman, 20 June 2011

Roee Ruttenberg: Can you tell us a little bit about the current state of the Palestinian refugees, specifically vis-à-vis the what they are seeing around the region in the so-called “Arab Spring?”

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: The situation is quite different in a number of states or territories. In Syria, for example, there’s great upheaval, though by and large UNRWA refugees have managed to keep their heads below the unrest. But one of is of course very nervous about the security situation in the camps. In Jordan, too, there’s been unrest. But by and large it’s not really affected the refugees. In Lebanon, they have a particular problem which is access to the labor markets. So you saw how despite the change in legislation, the refugees don’t have the access to jobs that they should, so they basically empty the bins and do jobs that the lowest of the lows do. Even qualified doctors and nurses – they can work for UNRWA but they can’t work in the public or private sector in Lebanon itself. In Gaza, of course, the blockade has now gone into its fifth year. It’s a collective punishment – 1.5 million people, a million of whom are refugees, 54% of whom are children – under blockade are being collectively punished. And in the West Bank we are seeing the occupation continuing to erode the long-term economy of the refugees. So things are very different depending on where the refugees are in the region.

Palestinian refugees flee to Lebanon, late 1948 (Photo: Gnuckx, CC license)

Palestinian refugees flee to Lebanon, late 1948 (Photo: Gnuckx, CC license)

Roee Ruttenberg: What about the Palestinian territories. You have Palestinian refugees and non-refugees. What is the distinction?

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: (UNRWA) has just come out with an economic report – survey of the jobs market – which shows that in the West Bank there are about 750,000 refugees, and long-term there are real structural problems. They are slipping further and further into poverty, into food insecurity, and that’s very largely because of the occupation in the West Banks, hundreds of Israeli checkpoints which cut them off from their markets, from their lands, from their traditional water sources. In Gaza, it’s very much about the blockade. We now have a situation where, comparing now with pre-blockade levels, we are getting in about 40% of what we need. UNRWA is trying to build a hundred schools in Gaza, and yet a relatively small fraction of those projects have been approved (by the Israelis). So we are waiting for the Israeli government to realize that the only people who are really benefitting in Gaza are Hamas. That’s not in Israel’s interest. What we want to see is a fully lifting of the blockade in accordance to the “Agreement on Movement and Access” which foresees both exports coming out of Gaza and raw materials coming into Gaza, which people can make some of, which creates jobs.

Roee Ruttenberg: The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that he will declare an independent Palestinian state via the UN and will ask the UN for its support and recognition when the General Assembly meets in September. What are the implications of that for Palestinian refugees, specifically in the Palestinian territories?

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: We hope that the implications will be enormous. We hope that as the Palestinians move, apparently, towards a declaration of statehood, they’ll realize that the refugees have to have some place in the political order. And I think the Arab Spring has shown that people are crying out for social and political inclusion, for an end to injustice. You can’t leave the Palestine refugees behind. So I hope that the declaration of statehood will bring forward some political bravery, some commitment and some courage from the decision-makers, from the statesmen of this world. Because there is no doubt in my mind that you cannot have a just and durable peace unless 4.8 million refugees are brought out of their 63-year exile, statelessness and dispossession.

10. Shuafat Refugee Camp Checkpoint. 13:14PM (Photo: Mairav Zonszein)

Roee Ruttenberg: There are critics who say the UN treats the Palestinians with some favoritism, that the Palestinians refugees have their own UN agency – your agency, UNRWA – dedicated specifically to their cause, something no other group has. And just this week, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the international community treats the Palestinians like “spoiled children.” How do you respond to such criticisms?

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: It’s very vindictive and its political wishful-thinking because if UNRWA went away and UNHCR took over the refugees, their inalienable rights would not disappear. So the right of return, which is enshrined in the “Universal Declaration (of Human Rights)” wouldn’t suddenly go away because UNRWA went away. No. All internationally-accepted paradigms for solving this conflict say that the future plight of the Palestine refugees has to be resolved in a just and durable solution. Only then will UNRWA start talking about handing over its services and disappearing. That’s how the world has posited the end of the refugees problem, and that’s how the General Assembly sees it. If Israel or anyone else sees differently, they’ll have to go to the General Assembly and get that changed, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

*** note: the above is a transcript for an interview that aired on CCTV News on Monday, 20 June 2011

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    COMMENTS

    1. David

      It would be just and helpful to read a little about the Arab role in the “refugee” issue.
      Why can nobody answer the question why the Palestinians have this very special status amongst the many millions of genuine refugees across the globe?
      Why is is it that only in Arab culture is refugee transferable from one generation to the next?
      What makes the Palestinians different, to say the Boat People ?

      Reply to Comment
    2. arlosoroff

      “You have Palestinian refugees and non-refugees. What is the distinction?” He didnt awnser the question, does anyone know the answer?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      David-
      The answer is Arab Petrodollars. They keep greasing the international scene. Without that, no one would care about the refugees, the settlements, the Arab/Israeli conflict in general. As I pointed out in the thread about the women drivers in Saudi Arabia..the Saudi Royal personally donates millions of dollars to ex-Presidents like Bush I who got something like $20 million for his Presidential library and Jimmy Carter who received millions for his foundations.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Koshiro

      “So we are waiting for the Israeli government to realize that the only people who are really benefitting in Gaza are Hamas. That’s not in Israel’s interest.”
      Oh, but of course it is. Where would Israeli propaganda be without being able to point to the ominous Hamas charter? So Hamas has to stay in power, both to have an excuse not to come to terms with the Palestinians and to keep the Israeli population just frightened enough to go along with any scheme their political leaders have in mind.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mark

      @ David,
      where can I read about the international law that says refugee status is transferable from one generation to the next? I have heard people say this but have never seen it written. would like to no more…

      Reply to Comment
    6. Monster

      Exactly, Koshiro. That’s why they created Hamas in the 80s. Control both sides of the fight and you always win.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben Israel

      Chris is certainly strengthening my claim that there is no basis to think there can ever be a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. As long as they believe the nonsense he is spouting about an “inalienable right of return” (who says?) or that there are “millions of stateless Palestinian refugees” even when a couple million live in Jordan as Jordanian citizens (i.e. they are not “stateless”) or the large number in the Palestinians Authority territories and Gaza who are also not “stateless” they will continue wallowing in their sense of victimhood and they will not accept any compromises. I am sure Abbas and the PA are aware of this so they can NOT compromise and Israel can never accept these demands. End of story.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Lucy

      @arlosoroff @mark The UN Refugee Convention (which covers all other refugees) was signed in 1951. UNRWA was set up earlier in 1949 specifically for Palestinian refugees as the UN felt responsible for the creation of this refugee population. Resolution 302 established UNRWA and was passed unopposed, supported by Israel and the Arab states. UNRWA’s definition of a refugee confirms that refugee status is passed to descendants of the original refugees.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Alex

      Ben Israel, all your arguments are incorrect.
      1) All refugees, Palestinian or not, have an ‘inalienable right of return’ to their original homelands if, and when, the conditions are suitable for their return.
      2) The refugees who live in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza are stateless, as there is no internationally recognised Palestinian state. Yes, there are some living in Jordan, but not all are granted Jordanian citizenship, and it is explicitly stated that those who have been afforded citizenship have been done so on the condition that they be considered Palestinian refugees when a Palestinian state is eventually created.
      3) In your first post you talk of ‘arab petrodollars’ greasing the wheels of world politics and perpetuating the arab/israeli crisis, but I would suggest that it is in fact the loose affiliation of organisations and groups known as the ‘Israeli lobby’ that have an infinite amount more influence in Washington.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Alex

      Just to add, what exactly are the demands made by the Palestinians? It would seem to me that it is the Israeli’s making all the demands – the Palestinians must unify, the 1967 borders cannot be accepted, the ‘demographic realities on the ground’ (i.e. illegal settlements) must be taken into account if peace is to be achieved.

      Reply to Comment
    11. sh

      @David “What makes the Palestinians different, to say the Boat People ?”

      1)They didn’t arrive here by boat. – Actually we’re the boat people.

      2) Boat people who found shelter and citizenship in lands far from home do not want to go back. Palestinians, unwelcome in the neighboring countries to which they fled, do.

      3) What made refugees out of us, diaspora Jews, that we should lawfully regain our country after more than 2,000 years of exile? And how, then, can we possibly deny them theirs?

      Reply to Comment
    12. Chris Gunness asked me to add the following, from this afternoon:
      “UNRWA has informally learned of the decision by the Israeli authorities to approve a number of construction projects for Gaza, including housing and schools. We welcome this reported approval which follows lengthy negotiations with the Israeli authorities. The reported approval will be judged in light of the arrival of the necessary materials in Gaza. We hope this will help meet the needs of refugees, particularly those in the South of the Gaza Strip, many of whom lost their homes nearly a decade ago. UNRWA’s fundamental request, as reiterated by the Commissioner General at the opening of today’s meeting of the Agency’s Advisory Commission, is that the blockade be lifted”.

      Reply to Comment
    13. David

      UNRWA’s full eligibility rules :

      “1.
      Persons who meet UNRWA’s Palestine Refugee criteria
      These are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict. Palestine Refugees, and descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are eligible to register for UNRWA services. The Agency accepts new applications from persons who wish to be registered as Palestine Refugees. Once they are registered with UNRWA, persons in this category are referred to as Registered Refugees or as Registered Palestine Refugees.”
      from : http://www.unrwa.org/userfiles/2010011995652.pdf

      Reply to Comment
    14. David

      SH
      We deny them theirs because they tried to kill us three times. Hamas stills calls for our death.
      Regarding the Boat People. YES precisely, the Boat People and all other frigg’in refugees were “moved on”, the Pals are kept in perpetual misery by their “Brother” host nations, who’d rather shaft their beloved Muslim brothers at infinitum before giving them full rights, like all other refugees are afforded.
      SH, would you rather have another sixty years of Pal refugee slums with many millions, or would you rather see an integration into the societies into which they were born?
      What sort of a policy is it to work towards a fantasy goal, and screw up 4 million people every day. The logic and humanism in this escapes me.

      Reply to Comment
    15. brad evans

      and so the does the UN agree that all Jews who lost homes, possessions and lives in other Mid East Countries in the late 40’s/early 50’s have equal claims on land on Irag, Syria etc, as the Pals supposedly do in Israel…

      can anyone explain that …?

      can anyone explain why Palestinians are not grant citizenship in any of the countries they’ve been refugees in for 60 years.

      Reply to Comment
    16. sh

      @David – “they tried to kill us three times. Hamas stills calls for our death.”
      Who are “they” who tried to kill us? And which three times are you talking about? Did we never try to kill them? Is that what you’re claiming?

      You complain that Hamas has not changed its charter – at least that’s what I assume you mean with your remark about seeking our death. True, until now it has only dropped its call for Israel’s destruction from its election manifesto, the charter remains intact. But if peace was really on the cards, things could change. In our spoken media we are often regaled with telephone interviews with Hamas leaders in Gaza, who sound a lot more moderate than that 1988 charter people like you wave around.

      Re ending the refugee camps, from our side I would rather see a real attempt to reach a peace deal, with an open-ended settlement freeze as our first step towards it. Talks would have to include honest discussion of the Palestinian claim of right of return and acceptance of a degree of liability for their displacement and mistreatment, which our neighboring Arab countries would also have to do. Another 60 criminal years of same is exactly what I do not want to see.

      As regard fantasy goals, it’s not 4 million people that are screwed up by this endless charade of peace and these mysterious painful concessions that never get fleshed out. It’s over 11 million when we include ourselves, and more than that if you count the Lebanese too.

      Reply to Comment