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UNRWA chief: Palestinian refugees sidelined, ignored, undermined

Nov. 9, 2012 4:29 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 10, 2012 6:26 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- The sidelining of Palestinian refugees could have dire consequences for regional stability, UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi has warned.

"Ignored and undermined, Palestinian hopes for a better future have never been as low as they are today. Predicting the outcome of collective hopelessness is not difficult; we all know what frustration and marginalization can breed in volatile regions," Grandi told a committee of the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.

"At a time when the Arab Spring has brought dynamism and attention to the Middle East, Palestinians -- and Palestine refugees in particular -- remain sidelined, to all intents and purposes forgotten by the international community and increasingly vulnerable amidst both unresolved and fresh conflicts," he added.

Grandi, commissioner-general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said the lack of a just solution for 5 million Palestinian refugees bred hopelessness and despair.

He called on Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip, home to a growing population of 1.2 million Palestinian refugees. By 2020 the enclave will be unlivable, he added.

"The message is stark, and dramatic. Unless the blockade is lifted and the economy restarts, Gaza will not be a liveable place by any standards."

Israel's blockade has created a skewed economy based on public salaries funded by international assistance and the tunnel trade. "Most people do not benefit - or benefit very little - from this situation, and continue to depend on food and cash assistance," Grandi said.

UNRWA's task of rebuilding Gaza has been made more difficult by Israeli delays in approving projects, costing $5 million of donor money in 2011.

Lifting the blockade means resuming investments, farming, trade, free movement and allowing exports to the West Bank and Israel, Grandi added.

"Because without drastic changes, Gaza will remain in a man-made crisis: 80 percent aid dependent, and economically strangled, a worrying prospect as it moves towards 2020 with a very large, frustrated and unemployed young population."

West Bank crisis

The West Bank is often characterized as being in a situation of status-quo. "It is not," Grandi said. "A devastating protection crisis prevails.

"The continued settlement expansion, settler violence, land expropriation, building prohibitions, increased demolitions, movement restrictions and the asphyxiation of traditional herding livelihoods have been reported countless times," Grandi said.

These events have become "the day-to-day norm" but they are illegal under international law, "the cause of unbearable hardship for countless people, and a major obstacle to peace."

"Make no mistake: (Palestinians) are being progressively, sometimes openly alienated from their land, from Jerusalem, from each other, thereby becoming increasingly confined to their immediate enclaves, unable to enjoy to the fullest their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights."

The UNRWA chief noted that public statements frequently condemned settlement building, but said Israel's settlement enterprise would continue with impunity in the absence of political determination to stop it.

In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees have limited rights to work and may not own property, leading to rife poverty and squalid living conditions, while poverty among Palestinian refugees in Syria exacerbated their vulnerability to war in the country.

Grandi said some Palestinians fleeing Syria had been denied protection in neighboring countries. He urged governments to accept refugees based on humanitarian criteria and said UNRWA would try to minimize the burden on host communities.

"I would like to stress that Palestine refugees leaving Syria for temporary protection are fleeing the same grave risks and dangers as other refugees."

"In spite of the relatively small number of Palestine refugees that have left Syria, their plight sadly confirms our view that -- no matter how long they have lived in host countries and how hospitably they have been treated -- they remain extremely vulnerable and exposed to the shocks of crises, given the centrality and sensitivity of the Palestinian question in the regional context."

Reducing services 'politically risky, morally wrong'

UNRWA is facing chronic funding shortfalls. "If that were not enough, it is being subjected to renewed attacks peddling the simplistic and damaging falsehood that UNRWA is the 'cause' of the prolonged Palestine refugee issue and its disappearance would resolve this question," Grandi said.

"UNRWA -- neither the cause, nor the solution to the question of refugees, but the only tangible support felt by many of them -- is more necessary than ever" due to the international community's inability to find the political solutions to the plight of Palestinian refugees.

The UN agency relies on voluntary funding and its general fund to support education, health, relief, protection and social services is in "a perilous state," Grandi said, adding that it faced a $70 million shortfall for 2013.

He told the UN General Assembly committee: "I wish to state to you in stark, unequivocal terms that UNRWA's sustainability is at risk unless there is a quantum and sustained leap in your collective commitment to the agency."

UNRWA provides the minimum services necessary to meet refugees' social and economic rights. "To reduce them would not only be politically risky, but also morally wrong."

The agency is struggling to provide food assistance to 800,000 vulnerable refugees in Gaza, and has reduced key interventions in the West Bank. It needs $37 million by the end of November to pay December salaries.

"Walking or even tiptoeing away from UNRWA is simply not an option. The price, I am afraid, would be devastating."

Grandi added: "Palestine refugees may be a political question, but they are first and foremost people -- ordinary men and women who rightly insist on not being discarded and forgotten about as the flotsam and jetsam of history.

"As we know, the Arab Spring is being led by youth seeking human dignity. I have met extensively with Palestine refugee youth. They have the same aspirations, and their determination is boosted by a new confidence and empowerment. Our collective moral imperative is to recognize their rights."

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