Sixty years ago today the United Nations General Assembly voted into existence a temporary body known as UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. UNRWA’s task was to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the dispossession of some three quarters of a million Palestine refugees forced by the 1948 Middle East War to abandon their homes and flee their ancestral lands. Just two decades later, the 1967 war generated another spasm of violence and forced displacement, culminating in the occupation of Palestinian territory. Today, anguished exile remains the lot of Palestinians and Palestine refugees. The occupation of Palestinian land persists, there is no Palestinian state and the human rights and fundamental freedoms to which Palestinians are entitled under international law do not exist.
The occupation, now more than 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.
From my perspective as the head of the agency mandated to assist and protect Palestine refugees, 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 which 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 Jerusalem, 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?
On this regrettable 60th anniversary of the agency which I shall leave in less than one month, I wish to refocus the debate on the displaced and dispossessed, to put the refugees at the center of peace-making efforts. 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. The precedents of recent peace-making efforts and the methodology of contemporary conflict resolution affirm that giving high priority to resolving dispossession and the plight of refugees is a necessity, an international obligation and a humanitarian imperative.
The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is uniquely complex. Among its myriad dimensions, all of which require attention, the unresolved refugee issue is one of those most profoundly linked to the uncertainties of the regional situation and to the persistence of the conflict. Addressing it is, therefore, a sine qua non for making progress towards a negotiated solution. 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.
I refuse, however, to conclude my time in office on a pessimistic note. Instead I urge that we take steps to engage the marginalized. Let us confound the cynics. Let us create alternative realities to disarm those who favor violence. I call on the peacemakers to acknowledge, in their rhetoric and their policies, the need to address Palestinian dispossession. Let symbolism and rhetoric give way to substance. On the 60th anniversary of UNRWA, I call on the international community and the parties to the conflict to acknowledge the 60-year-old injustice as a first step towards addressing the consequences of that injustice. Let us build facts in the mind to create facts of a just and durable peace on the ground.
Karen AbuZayd is Commissioner General for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.