Three Generations of Palestine refugees: The Quest for Human Rights and Human Dignity

18 Nov 2008

Distinguished Delegates, my colleagues from United Nations agencies, Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), Friends;

I am honoured to join you today in Amman. I would like to thank Karen Koning AbuZayd, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)), for her leadership and passion for the rights of the Palestinian people and compassion for their plight. I have witnessed how she seizes every possible opportunity to speak out about the daily struggle of the Palestinian people and of the 35,000 Palestinian staff who are the backbone of the courageous work of UNRWA. Therefore, it is my distinct pleasure to address the UNRWA Hosts and Donors Meeting, an important event at a critical time.

When UNWRA was established in 1949, to carry out relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees, its creators viewed the agency as temporary, assuming the Palestine refugee crisis would be resolved within a reasonable amount of time. Regretfully, that has not been the case and for nearly six decades, Palestinian refugees have faced continuing hardship and progressive trauma, and deep uncertainty about their future, as most of them remain Stateless.

Over 60 years, faced with persistent challenges and conflicts, the communities of Palestine refugees have been sustained by their own strength and resourcefulness. And international support provided through UNRWA has made an essential contribution to their survival and well-being.

UNRWA staff and colleagues have continuously, throughout the years, stood up for ideals, acted to improve lives and struck out against injustice. They have delivered vital services, both in times of relative calm and in times of grave and escalating violence and conflict. UNRWA’s programmes have ensured that basic humanitarian and development needs are addressed, and have given the Palestine refugees hope that their plight is not forgotten.

Today, UNRWA is the main provider of education, health care, relief and social services to more than 4.6 million registered Palestine refugees in their own Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank and Gaza and in the neighbouring Arab host countries. And we should celebrate the resilience and courage of its leadership and staff.

UNRWA has come of age. A strong and financially stable UNRWA is in the interest of everyone who believes in human development and peace.

As donors and hosts, your support for UNRWA has allowed a critical number of refugees to survive throughout the most difficult conditions and lead productive and dignified lives as much as that is possible under occupation or in the host countries. Your continued commitment is needed to enable UNRWA to carry its mission forward.

Today, most Palestine refugees face difficult conditions; the recent developments in Gaza demand immediate attention. Since the 5th of November, the shipment of food, medicine, fuel and gas has been fully suspended again through an imposed quarantine, aggravating the already precarious situation in Gaza itself. This has prompted International Committee of the Red Cross and UNRWA officials to express deep concern as the humanitarian situation continues to worsen.

Renewed tensions in Gaza have led to a worrying escalation of violence, raising the grim prospect of an end to the truce and escalating conflict. Too often in the past, the region and its peoples have seen periods of hope end, leaving a bitter feeling of disillusion and disappointment.

It is up to all of us to ensure that this pattern is not repeated. We must all do our part to move decisively towards a just and lasting peace.

The impact of the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine has strong repercussions regionally and globally.

At the economic and development level, we are faced today with a fast-track financial crisis, a food crisis and the immeasurable consequences of climate change. The impact of these crises will be felt in every corner of the globe, in every community, street and home. Its worst impact, however, will be most felt by the vulnerable and the Palestine refugees among them.

I raise these issues today at this Hosts and Donors meeting of UNRWA, because we meet at a time when leadership, vision and international cooperation are desperately needed. It is exactly the time that we, as an international community and host countries, should not and cannot abandon the people and services that UNRWA provides to the refugees in the camps.

While the grave crises we confront have varied and complex causes, central to all of them is the subsequent deprivation and suffering of the most vulnerable people, especially refugees.

For individuals and families struggling to cope with increased hardship and shortages, being able to enjoy a meal, get medical care, or stay in school can mean the difference between hope and despair, and in the worst cases, between living and dying.

Distinguished Participants,

We meet here in Amman just weeks ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with one nation singled out as the last in contemporary history that is still under occupation, seemingly without an end in sight. We meet a year ahead of the 60th anniversary of UNRWA to be commemorated next December and this reminds us that a just and lasting peaceful solution is 60 years overdue—60 years of dispossession is a stark denial of the very basic inalienable human right of self-determination, not to speak of all the principles of the Universal Declaration.

At this juncture, I would like to speak today about three generations of Palestine refugees, whether they are in refugee camps or living on small dissected pieces of land under the Palestinian Authority: three generations who every day struggle to assert their inalienable right to self-determination, the right to live in a peaceful democratic State where they can enjoy their human rights and achieve their human dignity.

Allow me to start with a brief story that expresses in a deeply human and profound way a few of the many challenges faced. It is a story that is of special significance to UNFPA because it is about women, their lives and their health and especially their reproductive health.

Samira is a typical mother expecting a baby, but compared to other women around the world, her situation is unique. As a Palestinian woman living in an area of the West Bank restricted by a separation barrier, isolated by one of the hundreds of Israeli military blockades, Samira is anxious about how to get to a maternity facility when she goes into labour.

At midnight, she awakens her husband and asks him to take her to the hospital. The family leaves the house quickly, arriving at a military checkpoint at the only exit to town. After two and half hours, the family is denied passage and the soldiers threaten to shoot the family, if they disobey orders and don’t turn back.

The family starts the way back home while Samira’s labour pains intensify. Everyone in the car is praying for her safety. Luckily, Samira’s daughter, Miriam, has received training on birthing and delivery. With little space in the backseat of her family’s car, Miriam plays the role of a midwife and Samira gives birth safely to a healthy baby boy.

This story is real and we have among us my colleague, Wasim Zaman, UNFPA’s Representative in the Occupied Territory, who visited Samira and her family a short while ago. I wish I could say that her story was unique, but sadly it is not, and not all families are so lucky.

Of the populations at risk due to closure restrictions, pregnant women face the highest risk of all.

UNFPA has produced a video called, “Born at the Checkpoint,” in which survivors tell their stories of giving birth unattended on the road. Some bled, and others died with their newborns. The stories reflect the harsh reality of the drastic conditions families face, and especially women, just to survive to give life.


Distinguished Delegates,

Having lived in Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s, I gave birth to my second child while the city in which I lived in Sidon (or Saida), was being bombed. So, I know what it means to give birth under military action. But that was only one incident in my life. It pales in comparison to the situation of Palestinian women, especially those who live in the Occupied Territory, who face devastating conditions on a daily basis.

While conditions are deteriorating in Gaza due to instability, Israeli attacks and closures, Palestine refugees in the West Bank face another challenge. The illegal separation barrier and its system of obstacles, permits and prohibitions seriously impede free movement and access of Palestinians to health care and other social services, farmland and employment. As I speak, about 60 per cent of the separation barrier’s final route has been completed and 10 per cent is under construction.

In essence, the wall constitutes an imprisonment of a people. The world does not seem to see the irony of celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall and commemorating the event while accepting, mostly through silence, the wall that is being built in the West Bank, which further accentuates isolation and imprisonment of people on their own land.

For the Palestinian people, the reality is even the more harsh and cruel. Trying to find ways to reach beyond the wall has become a daily toil, a daily torture of some kind. Being denied access to health services, schools, employment, and meeting family members is a growing characteristic of daily life. Being collectively quarantined without a disease, and collectively imprisoned and punished without a crime are all facets of how a Palestinian living within these walls feels. There is also the impact of the wall on the young who, feeling more and more disenfranchised and isolated, are left with a sense of frustration and inconsolable despair.

In a study that UNFPA prepared on the impact of armed conflict on young people, we found that young people perceived the wall as depriving them of their sense of freedom, and keeping them under surveillance, which increased their sense of rage, humiliation and disrespect. Coupled with the enormous checkpoints and the humiliating personal search of every Palestinian going through these points, the young people considered it another demeaning factor that made them feel oppressed, frustrated and extremely angry.
A 15-year-old girl named, Asheera, described the situation in a few telling words: “It is a strangulation of freedom.” Fadel, aged 17, said: “We are always under pressure and, really, this is not the kind of life that any human being should live.”

According to a recent survey, less than 20 per cent of those who used to farm their lands in the northern West Bank are now granted so-called “visitor” permits to cross the barrier to reach their farms and wells. This means that more than 80 per cent of people who used to farm lands in this area are being denied access to their livelihoods, the very source of their survival.
Due to this reality and other cumulative factors, food insecurity is on the rise as the Palestinian economy continues to decline. During the last year, in the West Bank and Gaza, the price of staples such as wheat rose by some 70 per cent, and a recent survey found that many parents had reduced their food intake to allow their children enough to eat.

I bring these issues to your attention today because the increase in poverty and trauma is taking a progressive toll on women and families. As the pain of hunger, feelings of humiliation and disempowerment and depth of frustration rise, households encounter higher rates of domestic violence. It is violence that is a product in great part of the overall violent environment in which families live and in which men, who are raised traditionally, feel so disempowered by the occupation.

While the centrality of the family to Palestinian society is unquestioned, the strains and burdens on families and family members are being stretched to the limit. It is the women in particular who have largely maintained the integrity of society and the identity of the people during these 60 years of occupation. But they all ask: for how much longer?

The coping mechanisms of women are being severely tested as they attempt to promote welfare, find work, put food on the table, care for injured and disabled family members and bear and raise children in extremely difficult conditions.

In this context, Palestinian women are often characterized as “shock absorbers,” but their absorptive capacity is neither shock-proof nor without limit. If Palestinian women are to look after the needs of others, then, their own safety, dignity and health must be promoted and protected. All of us need to do more to support the health and rights of Palestine refugee women. And UNRWA is certainly working hard to do so.

I would also like to call for increased special attention to young people, who represent the majority of the Palestinian population. Today, 45 per cent of people in the Occupied Territory are under the age of 15. They need our support to find hope, as we hear their stifled voices speak.

Allow me to tell you another story about how young Palestinians, the third generation, see their lives. Some young volunteer architects held a series of activities over a number of summer vacations to promote a sense of empowerment for young people through art and design in Burj al Barajeneh Camp and Beit Atfal Al Smoud in Beirut. The aim was to provide space for the young people to create and improve the environment of their surroundings. Knowing there were no playgrounds, the young participants were asked to use traditional games and invent new ones that could be played within the limited public space available between the houses of the camp. The young people were supposed to experience a sense of fulfillment for doing something that was specifically theirs and which, when implemented, could be of benefit to their community. And the first year’s theme was: dreaming.

Do you know what they built to express their dreams – wings to wear so as to fly, airplanes to soar away in, passports and similar travel products. They drew, constructed shapes and forms and talked about their dreams—all waiting for a visa to leave the camp and the host country to any place that might give them the dignity of being citizens and not refugees. While they heard beautiful stories about Palestine from their grandparents’ 60-year-old memory, Palestine was a beautiful concept for them. What they knew far too well, what the world—the media, the politicians, the host countries, the donors, the United Nations and reality itself—all told them was that they were REFUGEES. That is the identity that they have internalized and that was the identity that they most wanted to escape. They want to be like you and me—like every one of us—living in a country of their own to which they belong as citizens and where they can work for and even struggle in order to exercise the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I would like to emphasize that our support to parents and young people so they have coping mechanisms to deal with their daily difficult lives is of the utmost importance, as we seek to find a just and lasting solution to the tragic event in our history. And UNRWA is working hard to do so.

Representatives of host and donor countries,

My colleagues and I at UNFPA are proud of our partnership with UNRWA, although it is limited, and we look forward to expanding it and being here with you is the first step towards institutionalizing it. We share the same concerns, and work in the same spirit and we do complement each other in many ways. UNFPA is working in the Occupied Territory to improve reproductive health, advance women’s and youth empowerment, and foster a greater understanding of population trends and dynamics.

We are proud to have partnered with the Palestinian Authority to complete, despite all odds, the Palestinian 2007 housing and population census, which included UNRWA cooperation on the ground. We hope the data will assist planners and decision makers now and in the future in the long-awaited Palestinian State.

One of our core areas of engagement is providing essential reproductive health supplies and services. This includes restoring health facilities, procuring reproductive health supplies and essential drugs to support the health system established within the context of the Palestinian Authority. UNFPA provides through its local partners psychological and clinical services to women, youth and their families. It also offers essential training in safe delivery, emergency obstetric care, psychosocial support and counselling.

To contribute to women’s empowerment, UNFPA, together with partners, has developed a network of women’s coalitions in Nablus, Jenin, Hebron and Gaza. The network is designed to improve the protection of women and girls in the Occupied Territory within the framework of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 (2000), on Women, Peace and Security.

I am also pleased to report that UNFPA, UNRWA and other United Nations agencies have joined hands to fight HIV/AIDS through a comprehensive programme, with financing from the Global Fund for HIV, Malaria and Tuberculosis. We are also working together with UNRWA on joint awareness campaigns addressing youth needs and gender-based violence.

In all of our programmes, we take a culturally sensitive approach and try to listen to people as they identify their needs. We then support their efforts to devise solutions.

When we were preparing the report on the impact of armed conflict on children in the Occupied Territory in 2007, we found that most children appreciated the opportunity to openly and freely reflect on their lives and challenges. Many said they felt relieved to know that other young people in the world thought and felt like they did. The older children, especially, repeatedly expressed their desire for more dialogue sessions and expressed hope for peace and financial security. Younger children manifested more fear and anxiety and wanted to have more time for recreational activities.

One of the key findings of the report is that, due to such high levels of frustration, young people have a deep need for us adults to listen to them because this could provide them with an important source of strength, support and empowerment simultaneously. We can learn from them as a resource for programmes that meet their expressed needs.

We also found that, like all young people worldwide, Palestinian youth really enjoy using the computer and the Internet. Some young people have established their own websites, so their voices could escape the isolated world in which they live, to connect with the wider external world and defeat the stereotyping of Palestinians as merely violent and destructive.

Many children and young people spoke about their involvement in social activities—whether sports, youth clubs, scout groups or summer camps—as helping them to cope with their frustrations. Some girls from Ramallah expressed concerns about having less freedom because of the fears of their families for their safety under conditions of occupation and escalating violence. All this has evoked a higher level of traditionalism as well as a call for the assertion of identity and an enhanced sense of cultural authenticity.

We found a lack of girls’ involvement in The Freedom Theatre supported by UNFPA and other partners in Jenin Camp. During the last year, The Freedom Theatre offered hope and dynamism in the community, with a total of 79 performances. But the Theatre Director said they were finding it hard to get girls to take part because increasingly stricter traditional values were being revived in an attempt to retain a sense of identity and stability. This is taking place in the context of, and enhanced by, deepening crisis and trauma.

Here I would like to reiterate again our desire to expand UNFPA joint work to cover UNRWA’s five fields of operations, especially in the area of promoting and protecting the rights of young people.

Investing in youth is an investment in the future leaders of Palestine, and UNRWA is doing essential work in providing valuable education, training and much-needed capacity-building. But we need to look into other areas and how the youth themselves see their emerging needs in this globalized world. As a first step towards implementing an effective programme for Palestinian youth in refugee camps with a forward-looking vision, we at UNFPA propose to join hands with UNRWA to jointly develop areas identified by the young people themselves. Together, we can and should celebrate the energy of young people, they are both our present and their own future.

Distinguished participants,

I would like to stress that during this period—when tough decisions are being made, especially with regard to the financial crisis—it is vital for leaders to stay focused on the human rights and dignity of people, especially the distressed and vulnerable. We must protect the gains that have been achieved and prevent crises from spiralling down even deeper.

As we do that, let us keep in mind the work of UNRWA and what it represents to three generations of Palestine refugees. I call on you today not only to continue your support to UNRWA, but to increase it because the future of the Palestinian people deserves it and because world peace requires it. This call is to all participants here—donors as well as host countries.

Increased funding and improved living conditions would give a clear signal to the Palestinians trapped in refugee camps and those living under occupation that their needs remain at the forefront of concerns of the international community. That would make a significant contribution to stability and hope in the region, as we keep working for a just and lasting solution that would allow the Palestinian people to exercise their human rights in their own State.

Looking forward, I urge you to continue your commitment to UNRWA as it undertakes its responsibility to be the delivery institution for social services to a large segment of the Palestinian people trapped in refugee camps.

In this spirit, I pray that one day, not too far away, in our lifetimes, peace with justice will shine upon the Palestinian people as they commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their own State on their own land.

Thank you.


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