Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

UNWRA chief: Peace talks must deal with Palestinian refugees

11 December 2009

By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz – 11 Dec 2009

Early in the second intifada, Karen Koning AbuZayd, then the newly appointed deputy commissioner general of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) traveled to Rafah, in Gaza, to observe firsthand the situation of Palestinian refugees whose houses had been razed by bulldozers of the Israel Defense Forces. AbuZayd saw an old woman sifting through the ruins. The woman stretched out a hand to the visitor so that she would not trip over the pieces of rubble. According to AbuZayd, who has headed UNRWA since 2005, this was typical Palestinian behavior: They are incredibly patient, she says and notes, with a sigh, that she sometimes even became angry with them because they never raise their voice.

Apparently, no one in the world is as knowledgeable about refugees as AbuZayd, a fair-skinned woman from Chicago who arrived here after having provided shelter to the refugees of the horrible war in the Balkans. Before that, she was busy with the refugee camps in Africa. (AbuZayd is the name of her husband, a Sudanese professor who recently died.) In an interview on the eve of her departure from her post at UNRWA, she speaks as a major advocate of the Palestinian refugees and, for the first time in her career at the United Nations, without diplomatic kid gloves.

“From my perspective as the head of the Agency mandated to assist and protect Palestine refugees,” she begins, “it is particularly vexing that the prevailing approach fails – or refuses – to accord the refugee issue the attention it deserves. Over 60 years, dispossession has faded from the focus of peace efforts. The heart of where peace should begin is absent from the international agenda, pushed aside as one of the ‘final status’ issues, one that belongs to a later stage of the negotiation process. As forced displacements continue across the West Bank, as Palestinians are evicted from their homes in East Jersualem, I ask a simple question. Is it not time for those engaged in the peace process to muster the will and the courage to address the Palestine refugee question?

“Make no mistake, not a single conflict of contemporary times has been resolved, no durable peace achieved unless and until the voices of the victims of those conflicts were heard, their losses acknowledged and redress found to injustices they experience. In addition, it has been a truism of peace making in recent times that all parties to a conflict are given a seat at the negotiating table. Failing to engage with the refugee issue and consciously shunting it to one side has served only to disavow the refugees’ significance as a constituency with a prominent stake in delivering and sustaining peace. This has left many with a dangerous cynicism about the peace process, thus strengthening the hands of those who argue against peace itself.”

What is unique about the plight of the Palestinian refugees?

“Palestine refugees are unique in the contemporary refugee experience, as they have no state to return to, nor are they allowed to return to their homes. But the Palestinians are also in a unique place for other reasons. The world community talks about reducing and eliminating poverty, and yet in Gaza an occupied people is under extreme trade and economic sanction as a matter of political choice. And in the West Bank the closure regime – part of the military occupation – is leading to the continuing rise in poverty rates.

“The observance of human rights is seen as a given in all peacemaking efforts. Yet Palestinians are being deprived of a full spectrum of human rights – some as a result of deliberate political choice – to an extent unequaled elsewhere. The occupation, now over 40 years old, becomes more entrenched with every infringement of human rights and international law in the occupied Palestinian territory. Political actors hold in their hands the power to redress the travesties Palestinians endure. Yet, the approach has been, at best, to equivocate over the minutiae of the occupation – a checkpoint here, a bag of cement there – or, at worst, to look the other way, to acquiesce in or even support the measures causing Palestinian suffering.”

In light of her years of experience working with refugees, does AbyZayd believe that there can be a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute without the implementation of a “right of return” for the Palestinian refugees?

“The right of individuals to return to their country is a fundamental human right found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. Resolution 194, adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly, is understood by many jurists and by the refugees as affirming the right of the refugees to choose whether to return to their ancestral homes or receive compensation for lost property. The claim to a right of return continues to constitute part of the refugees’ identities and aspirations. UNRWA does not have a mandate to search for durable solutions for the refugees, but I believe that, for a resolution to be sustainable, it will have to be perceived as fair and just by major constituencies, including the refugees. This may very well require that the principle of the right of return be recognized or that other acknowledgments be made in a peace agreement, but to know for sure, we must talk with the refugees.”

AbuZayd is highly critical of both Israel and the international community. What does she have to say about the extent of the solidarity that Arab leaders have expressed with their refugee brothers and sisters?

“In 2009, Arab countries contributed only 1 percent to our regular budget, namely the general fund that covers our basic services, primary education and primary health care, some 70 percent of which is for salaries for our 29,680 staff. This is far short of the 7.8 percent, which is the target set by the Arab League itself 20 years ago.

“But there are some genuine misconceptions in Israel – and elsewhere – about how generous the Arab states have been, especially as far as our emergency programs are concerned. Kuwait’s $34 million for the Gaza Emergency Response is one of the largest single donations the Agency has ever received …. The Saudi Committee for the Support of the Palestinian People has pledged over $10 million this year for Gaza, more than most governments, Western or Arab …. The King of Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion for the reconstruction of Gaza, and other Gulf leaders have offered similarly large amounts. Much of this is for destroyed or damaged buildings. All that is preventing Arab leaders from being tested on these pledges is the Israeli government’s refusal to allow the entry of construction materials into Gaza. It is worth mentioning as well the contribution of the host countries – Jordan, Syria and Lebanon – to infrastructure and services for the refugees.”

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