UNRWA Commissioner-General, Karen Koning AbuZayd was the keynote speaker at the 60th anniversary conference of the Middle East Institute, the premier Washington “think tank” on policy issues affecting the region. Academics, diplomats, US goverment officials, and members of the public attended the meeting, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
I would like to begin with a word of sincere thanks to all of you and to the Middle East Institute. You have honoured my Agency, UNRWA, by inviting me to speak on the occasion of your sixtieth birthday. More importantly, my presence here tonight recognizes and pays tribute to the 4.3 million Palestine refugees who UNRWA serves in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the occupied Palestinian territory.
This past week, world attention was focused on the brutal tragedy wrought on the town of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza. I visited a home where 7 family members had been killed by an artillery shell. The mother asked me “why”, we are simple farmers. This, like all civilian deaths and casualties, is deplorable and senseless. Given the context in which UNRWA works and the nature of our mandate, my statements of late tend to dwell on destruction, poverty and the economic free-fall precipitated by the international embargo on the occupied Palestinian territory. This evening, however, I would like to reflect somewhat more deeply on the Palestine refugee condition.
In a real sense and at several different levels, Palestine refugees have become a many-sided symbol within the region and globally. They are a prism through which intricately-related dimensions of international trends in general, and the situation in the Middle-East in particular, can be seen, analyzed and, perhaps, better understood. I shall describe some Palestine refugee conditions which are part of the universal refugee condition. Others point to contradictions, dilemmas and lost opportunities that have become associated particularly with Palestine refugees. I would like us to ponder these aspects of what Palestine and its refugees have come to represent, and I invite you to see in the refugees and their circumstances, clues to the directions which political actors and policy-makers could be taking to move toward resolution of conflict in the Middle East – several of which have been mentioned in other contexts today.
Fifty-eight years after Palestinians fled their homes and abandoned their livelihoods, Palestine refugees remain suspended in a state of exile. In the decades since the initial conflict of 1948, generations of refugees have striven to free themselves from poverty and dependence on humanitarian assistance. UNRWA has been with them and (mostly) kept pace with their aspirations and achievements. We have interpreted our mandate in dynamic and responsive ways that have played a part in helping hundreds of thousands of refugees to become self-reliant.
Many – among them the 27,000 Palestinian staff of my Agency - have grasped the threads we offer. Through sheer determination and honest hard work, they have achieved self reliance (96% before the current intifada) and a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. In Jordan and Syria the process of self improvement has been greatly accelerated by the climate of hospitality and the generous civil and economic rights and freedoms accorded to Palestine refugees in those two countries.
Sadly, there are thousands of others for whom the transition from poverty to self-reliance has not been possible. And still others who, after having achieved a measure of self-sufficiency, find themselves today sliding back into poverty and dependence. This regression is becoming more commonplace as the economy in the occupied territory lies paralyzed by unsettling conflict since the year 2000; by the West Bank barrier and its associated regime of closures, and – since the beginning of this year - by a de facto sanctions regime that has brought living conditions, economic decline and human insecurity to new lows.
There is a quality that all Palestine refugees share - those who are winning the struggle against poverty as well as those who are still fighting for dignity and self-sufficiency. It is a quality that is common to refugees everywhere, but which Palestine refugees have come to epitomize. This feature is the profound and enduring sense of loss that is triggered when people are compelled to flee their homes and abandon their way of life in search of safety. That sense of loss is grounded in the profound human and social significance attached to the concepts of land and home. These concepts resonate deeply within the human psyche because the possession of land and home is connected to a primal impulse of how we as human beings define ourselves, our families, our communities and our national identities.
The situation in the occupied Palestinian territory does not allow the refugee issue – much less the refugee condition - to resolve itself or to fade away. On the contrary, the bleak and dismal conditions that currently prevail ensure that the wounds and the pain of 1948 and 1967 remain exposed and alive. They ensure that these wounds are renewed and transmitted to successive generations. Each missile that strikes Gaza reminds Palestine refugees of the striking contrast between their lack of sophisticated weaponry and the justness of their cause. Every death of a civilian man, woman or child becomes a chance for extreme elements to attract new recruits and to justify violence and conflict as paths to martyrdom. And so it is, from one generation to the next, that civilian deaths and injuries, on both sides, serve only to replenish the reservoirs of unreasoning hatred and continue to fuel this conflict.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that Palestinians- refugees and non refugees alike - are astute seasoned observers of the international scene. They are aware that in the standard refugee paradigm, refugee status is not meant to be permanent. They know that in other contexts, refugee situations are resolved when international pressure is applied through political channels to resolve the root causes of a conflict. And they know that such resolution enables refugees to return voluntarily and in safety and dignity to their countries of origin. Palestine refugees understand that the peace process is meant to deliver in a form acceptable to all parties, a Palestinian state - a place of safety that Palestinians can call their own; a place where they will be left in peace to build their nation. Refugees are also aware that the absence of a solution does not preclude their entitlement to international protection. They believe that while a just solution is being worked out, they are entitled to the protection of international law and to full realization of their rights to liberty, dignity and decent standards of living.
One can imagine Palestine refugees listening and watching the international scene with these considerations in mind. Their attitude would surely be one of wry amusement as successions of high level officials mount political platforms to utter passionate promises about their commitment to the peace process and their determination to revive it. These promises may be well-intentioned. However, as time passes and the accumulations of promises remain unfulfilled, we should not be surprised if the current impasse should seem ever more reminiscent of the international paralysis at the time of the seminal conflict in 1948.
The perpetual elusiveness of peace has itself become one of the trademarks of the Palestine refugee situation. What is painfully obvious to any observer is the profound exasperation with which Palestinians regard a peace process that is not in process or a roadmap, initiatives and resolutions that have led nowhere, regardless of which group is at the helm.
What is also obvious is that the profound frustration that Palestinians feel about the peace process conceals several complex layers of deeper frustrations. These deeper levels of disillusionment are related to the conflicting and contradictory vein in which the international community communicates with the Palestinian polity.
One area where the contradictions are at their most stark is the de facto sanctions regime imposed on the Palestinian Authority after the legislative council elections in late January this year. These sanctions are comprehensive and indiscriminate in their impact. Since February this year Israel has unilaterally withheld payment to the Palestinian Authority of 50 to 55 million dollars per month in taxes and customs duties. Donors have frozen their support for the PA’s budget so that no salaries have been paid to 165,000 employees since March this year (other than partial “allowances” the European-led Temporary International Mechanism has provided for health sector workers, families in deep poverty, and more recently, teachers). For fear of attracting US sanctions, banks refuse to deal with the Palestinian Authority or to facilitate the transmission of remittances from relatives and acquaintances abroad. With commerce and investment virtually drying up, the banking sector sinks into deep crises alongside a dying Palestinian economy.
At the same time, it is pertinent to recall that in spite of difficult and volatile conditions, Palestinians have built up an exemplary record of conducting and participating in elections that are acclaimed as free and fair by independent experts.
The observations of these election experts underline a cruel paradox that is baffling and saddening in equal measure. Rather than applaud and reward Palestinians for genuinely embracing a practice that is at the heart of democratic governance, we inflict upon the entire populace punitive measures that are igniting grave internal conflict and causing extreme human suffering. At a time when the peace process is moribund for lack of political leadership, the international community has no difficulty speedily mobilizing a destructive sanctions regime against one party to the peace process – sanctions which affect the entire population.
The contradictions inherent in the de facto sanctions regime remind me of the ambiguous way in which the international community reacts to violence in the conflict in the West Bank and Gaza. Our demands to renounce violence are all too often directed at one party to the conflict. Violence in all its forms should be condemned in unequivocal and even-handed terms, particularly where, as so often happens in Gaza, the use of force transgresses precepts of international law. For a variety of reasons, the international political community’s stock of credibility is at an all time low in the occupied Palestinian territory. We should strive not to further deplete this diminishing stock of trust through an ambiguous or partisan approach to denouncing violence or through blaming the victim.
We must mention another aspect of the Palestine refugee profile for which they have deservingly acquired iconic status. I am referring to the Palestinian ability to survive — and even to thrive — in a state of unrelenting siege. This quality exists, it is legendary and it deserves to be recognized and celebrated.
I am convinced that this ability, this stoic resilience is only a fragment of the significant human development potential of the Palestinians. From my years in Palestine, I see that a range of universal values are shared by – if not inherent in – Palestinian society and culture. Anyone who has lived and worked among Palestinians will have been struck by the openness of the youth to positive external influences; their instinctive affinity for a way of life in which fundamental rights and freedoms are shared by all; by the passionate Palestinian appreciation and desire for educational achievement and professional skills. Our experience also tells us that Palestinian society draws remarkable strength from a tightly knit, highly cohesive network of family and kinship that is reinforced by a strong moral and religious code.
It appears that the international community too often fails to recognize this potential. We fail to acknowledge that economic prosperity in the occupied territory could promote political stability and genuine security for Israelis and Palestinians. This failure to recognize Palestinian potential recalls the vanity of the stag in one of my favorite Aesop fables. Aesop lived in the sixth century BC. For the benefit of those of you who are too young to remember him, allow me to make the point by narrating the fable of “The Stag at the Pool”.
The Stag at the Pool
A stag, overpowered by heat came to a spring to drink. Seeing his own image reflected in the water, he greatly admired the size and variety of his horns, but felt ashamed of himself for having such weak and slender feet. While he was thus contemplating himself, a lion appeared at the pool and crouched to spring upon him. The stag immediately took flight, and exerting his utmost speed, as long as the plain was smooth and open, kept himself easily at a safe distance from the lion. But entering a wood he became entangled by his horns, and the lion quickly came to him and caught him. When it was too late, he thus reproached himself: “Woe is me! How I have deceived myself! These feet which would have saved me I despised, and I gloried in these antlers which have proved my destruction.”
The moral of this fable is: “What is most truly valuable is often underrated”. Hence the parallel to our failure to recognize and help develop the economic and social potential of the people in the occupied Palestinian territory. We compound these failures by getting drawn into a mindset that focuses on the political affiliations of the parties, or that places faith in military solutions, rather like the stag placed his faith in his splendid antlers. We neglect to encourage the elements that exist in Palestinian society in much the same way that the stag neglected to appreciate his hoofs. And we are looking for salvation in the wrong places in the same way that the stag took pride in a part of his anatomy that brought him to his doom.
None of this is to say that all is sweetness and light among Palestine refugees. On the contrary, the tensions that exist in every human society are in the Palestinian case greatly exacerbated by the extreme levels of violence the community witnesses or directly experiences on a daily basis. The fundamentals for human development and peace are present among a broad cross-section of Palestinians. They are there to be nurtured and they are strong enough to provide a viable foundation for tolerance and moderation in all aspects of political and social life. However, these positive forces co-exist with potentially regressive elements that draw their strength from the disaffection, anger, frustration and pain that is generated by the occupation and consequent conditions under which Palestinians live.
We should not stand idly by as the human development potential in Gaza and the West Bank is so tragically depleted. In spite of the best efforts of UNRWA and other humanitarian and development actors, this potential will continue to diminish unless political actors revive a meaningful peace process. Political actors must move quickly to help restore in both sides a genuine commitment to a peaceful resolution of this conflict and a recognition that there are partners among both parties. This vacuum in political leadership must be filled to offer a significant alternative to the futility of military and militant action. To those of us in the region it is as clear as day that the Palestinian issue is a quintessentially political issue. Its resolution simply will not be found on the battlefield.
Leaders in the political sphere must find the courage and creativity to reverse the current policy of isolation and oppression, and to replace it with an evenhanded approach based on equal respect for both sides, and symmetrical demands on both sides to respect and comply with principles of international law.
Peace is best achieved through a balanced and inclusive process of mutual accommodation and a need to compromise by all sides. Therefore, any political measure that ends the harsh sanctions against the Palestinian people should be nurtured and welcomed as a first step.
I have pointed to the immense potential for human development in Gaza and the West Bank, and emphasized that we must not allow this potential to go to waste, no less than we should allow the peace process to remain in its present catatonic state. The situation in Gaza and the West Bank shames us all. It makes nonsense of precepts of human rights and international legality. Most tragically of all, the situation in the occupied territory demeans humanity and devalues the sanctity of human life.
The onus is on concerned political leaders around the world to reverse the current situation. Only a credible peace process can halt the chronic tragedy and re-establish in the minds of both sides the vision of a stable and prosperous Palestinian state, living in peace with its neighbors and taking its proper place in the community of civilized nations. Only then can we expect to advance prospects for peace in the wider Middle East.