UNRWA support to Palestinian refugees: Does it contribute to a solution?

The third war in six years between Israel and Hamas in Gaza ended last August with an open-ended cease-fire.

Palestinian policemen loyal to Hamas guard outside the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian policemen loyal to Hamas guard outside the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The third war in six years between Israel and Hamas in Gaza ended last August with an open-ended cease-fire. Besides minor incidents the cease-fire still holds. However the hopes for a rapid reconstruction of Gaza have been dashed. Nor has the cease-fire been anchored in a political framework which could prevent it from unraveling as fast as previous cease-fires.
At a donor conference in Cairo last October $5.4 billion was pledged to support the reconstruction of Gaza, but not much of this has been seen on the ground. Arab countries who pledged to fund infrastructure have not kept their promises.
Mr. Robert Turner, director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, came to Brussels last week to inform EU institutions about the dire situation in Gaza. UNRWA stands for The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. The EU and its member states have become UNRWA’s largest multilateral donor, contributing 660 million euro to its regular budget in 2007-2013.
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UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide assistance to the Palestinians who fled or were forced to leave Palestine during Israel’s independence war. The number of refugees when UNRWA was established is estimated to about 700,000. With their descendants the number has grown to 5.2 million.
“The population in Gaza feels angry and frustrated,” Turner says. “The perception in Gaza is that nothing was achieved with the war. They got nothing for the sufferings they endured. Hardly any relief has arrived after the war.
Only a small proportion of the houses that were completely destroyed during the war have been rebuilt.”
He added that “in Sinai and along the border with Egypt we have a war situation. No negotiations are taking place to address the root causes of the conflict.”
There are no reliable opinion polls in Gaza. According to the director of the UNRWA Representative Office to the EU, Mr. Matthias Burchard, the inhabitants in Gaza are blaming both Israel and Hamas for the loss of life and the destruction they suffered. They also vent their anger against United Nations for not doing enough to help them.
A recent UN summary of an inquiry of 10 incidents during the Gaza war shows that civilians found themselves between the hammer and the anvil. In seven incidents Israeli shelling of UNRWA schools and shelters resulted in the loss of life and the wounding of many people. In three other incidents Hamas had stored weapons in schools and may also have launched attacks from them.
Turner heads an organization which functions as a kind of governmental structure in Gaza and accounts for 20 percent to 25 % of GDP in the strip. It employs 12,500 people and runs refugee camps, schools, health centers and social services offices. About 1.3 million people – 70% of the population in the Gaza strip – are counted as refugees. 868,000 of them are dependent on food assistance.
5,000 of UNRWA’s staff turned up during the war. 11 employees were killed.
UNRWA tends to blame Israel and its blockade of Gaza for the problems in the strip. In fact the situation deteriorated since Egypt destroyed the smuggling tunnels and closed the only border crossing between Gaza and Sinai because of the worsening security situation. The crossing was never intended for goods but its closing added to the isolation of Gaza.
Turner: “The blockage is not a siege. The problem is that almost nothing is leaving Gaza. The private economy cannot develop. The official unemployment rate is 45% – in reality it is higher.”
Mr. Christian Berger, director at the European external action service, EEAS, and responsible for North Africa and the Middle East, pays tribute to UNRWA’s difficult task but does not agree completely: “We can see a significant policy change after the war. For the first time export from Gaza is allowed and more goods are going into Gaza than before.
To develop the private economy you need export and import. There we can see an improvement.”
Both Turner and Berger mention UNRWA’s different roles as a provider of humanitarian aid, organizer of development assistance and stabilizer in the region. The stabilizing role is often highlighted, especially in the current situation when the Arab world is in turmoil.
According to Turner “UNRWA does not differ from other UN organizations. The only difference is that UN has established a special structure for the Palestinian refugee problem. The fact is that the refugees exist and must be taken care of.”
The question is, for how long? According to UNRWA, until “a just solution to their plight” has been found.
This is understood among the refugees themselves to mean a return to their original homes in Israel/Palestine – a solution which must be considered unrealistic. There is no “right of return” if it means creating a new injustice and destabilizing the receiving country.
Already the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine which was set up in 1949 was tasked with facilitating not only repatriation but also resettlement, economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees, and the payment of compensation. Since then options such as resettlement and rehabilitation have largely been ignored.
According to Israeli journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, who recently published a book called Industry of Lies, UNRWA was supposed to be a temporary solution but has instead perpetuated the refugee problem and the sense of victimhood among the Palestinians.
Yemini claims that all other refugee problems after the Second World War have been solved by resettlement. In his view UNRWA has transferred the status of refugeehood to new generations and continues to support millions of Palestinians, whether or not they have become citizens in the neighboring countries.
Turner is of the opinion that politics and the humanitarian issue cannot be separated. However, UNRWA has a limitation in its mandate and all parties to the conflict want them stay outside politics. What concerns him and should concern all of us is Gaza. He is afraid that Gaza risks becoming an unlivable place by 2020 because of its population density and scarcity of water and electricity.
Berger, the director at EEAS, is more concrete.
“There must be a solution of the conflict. For this two conditions must be fulfilled. The Palestinians must overcome their internal divide. On the operational level, Gaza cannot be closed off. If there is no solution, another war is likely to erupt.”
The talks after the Gaza war on a finding a solution for Gaza were almost immediately suspended. Israel is concerned about its security and demands the demilitarization of Gaza. Hamas is interested in lifting the blockade, opening the crossings and ending the isolation of the Gaza Strip.
Following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the EU established a border assistance mission at the Rafah crossing point with Egypt but it was closed in 2007 after Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority and took control of the strip.
“Our mission was mainly a confidence building measure,” Berger says. “Our offer still stands. [The] EU is prepared to resume and extend its role if the parties to the conflict would ask for our assistance.”
The author is a former official at the European Commission.