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UNRWA chief: Palestinian refugee crisis unparalleled

Sept. 24, 2009 10:31 A.M. (Updated: Sept. 25, 2009 6:10 A.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an/Agencies - No current world refugee crisis has gone unresolved longer than the Palestinian exodus, said the UN Relief and Works Agency's commissioner-general, Karen Abu Zayd, in New York on Thursday.

"The Palestinians make up the world's largest refugee group, and their plight has gone on longer than any other," the AP quoted Abu Zayd as saying during an event marking 60 years since UNRWA was established.

The UN's relief agency for Palestine refugees was founded in 1949, although its original mandate was temporary. Now deeply interwoven within Palestinian society itself, it still provides essential services to millions of refugees in camps throughout the Middle East.

"The protracted exile of Palestine refugees and the dire conditions they endure, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territory, cannot be reconciled with state obligations under the UN charter," Abu Zayd added at the UN General Assembly meeting.

Increased expenditures, necessitated by Israel's assault and siege on Gaza, have created a budget shortfall and restricted the UN agency's ability to provide for some one million of the Strip's 1.4 million Palestinians, according to UN officials.

"UNRWA is faced by a serious deficit that threatens its ability to continue delivering services," she said at the anniversary ceremony, which was attended by President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian Queen Rania, who is herself ethnically Palestinian.

"I wish there was no anniversary to mark," Queen Rania remarked. "But you and I know the reality is very different."

"Theirs [refugees'] is a life interrupted, a life half-lived. Hours wasted at checkpoints, another workday lost, another paycheck canceled, worried about what the family will eat... praying for an aid parcel," she added.

Some 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled during Israel's establishment in 1948 and 1949, and have thus far never been allowed to return to their homes due to race-based concerns about maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his regret to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel had not accepted a proposal made in June to allow the UN to begin reconstruction in Gaza, according to the UN News Centre.

Ban also urged Netanyahu to complete a full settlement freeze in occupied territory, and the implementation of other commitments under the Road Map, the official UN news agency reported on Thursday.

The secretary-general also expressed serious concern to Abbas about the situation in Gaza, the report said, noting that the UN remained ready to implement its proposed project to kick start some reconstruction and that it would continue to raise the issue with Israel.

In the same meeting, Ban reportedly congratulated President Mahmoud Abbas on what he called recent steps toward political renewal and statehood on the economic revitalization in the West Bank. He has voiced his strong support and pledged the UN’s assistance for a plan to build state institutions within two years that was announced by caretaker Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in August.

The secretary-general also urged both parties to get back to negotiations soon, the news agency emphasized, adding that Ban would meet the same day with leaders of the Quartet for the Middle East, which includes the UN, European Union, United States and Russia.
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