Urging political resolution, UN agency chief laments ‘sheer unsustainability’ of Gaza crisis

Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Pierre Krähenbühl (right), briefs the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee on 4 November 2014. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Pierre Krähenbühl (right), briefs the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee on 4 November 2014. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Gaza, 6 November 2014 – The underlying tensions which have brought Israelis and Palestinians into regular conflict and subjected Gaza to repeated warfare must be addressed once and for all, the head of the United Nations agency tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees has urged.

Speaking after addressing the UN General Assembly, Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), told UN Radio in an interview that a political resolution to the crisis in the Middle East is “essential” if the international community seeks to improve “a situation of extreme hardship for the people in Gaza.”

“The change of paradigm means that the underlying conditions and circumstances that lead to these repeated conflicts in Gaza have to be addressed once and for all,” Mr. Krähenbühl explained.

“To think that this is tenable in the future after this level of destruction is really not conceivable for me. And to just allow the situation to go back to pre-existing conditions under the blockade is not conceivable either so political action is required by the international community and by the Israelis and the Palestinians to resolve this type of blockade, lift it so that people can again enjoy freedom of movement, freedom of trade, and to engage in normal economic and social activities,” he added.

Pointing to the challenges faced by UNRWA on the ground, the Commissioner-General lamented the “sheer unsustainability” of the situation of Palestinian refugees that, he said, “have been now waiting for 65 years for a just and lasting solution to their plight” but, instead, had been subjected to the conflicts in Syria and Gaza, adding to the overall uncertainty of their situation.

The recent 51-day conflict between Gaza and Israel saw entire neighbourhoods in the Strip flattened, and almost one-third of its population uprooted. According to a recent UN assessment, as it stands now, over 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, affecting more than 600,000 people. Many people still lack access to the municipal water network. Blackouts of up to 18 hours per day are common.

In addition, the violence killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, including more than 500 children, and more than 70 Israelis.

Amid the widespread destruction and advancing winter, UNRWA is facing a shortfall in its general fund, which is used to finance the agency’s core activities of education, health, protection, relief and social services. The funding gap presently stands at $56 million, equivalent to one month’s operating costs. While UNRWA has taken measures to reduce its initially higher deficit, with only two months to go before the end of the year, the Commissioner-General has urged all UN Member States to find ways to fund the agency’s core work before year-end.

Mr. Krähenbühl acknowledged that UNRWA is already being stretched to its limits as it assisted some 860,000 people through its food distribution programme while also noting that the agency was sheltering 30,000 displaced people in 18 schools throughout the enclave.

But, he said, an estimated 120,000 people whose homes were entirely destroyed in the conflict were now waiting for funds promised at the recent Cairo conference to trickle in so that they could finally return home. As a result, he urged the international community to translate its pledges into “actual cash.”

“Otherwise, we will have people who are going to become increasingly angry, resenting the fact that there is no progress, and this is very urgent if we are to avoid further tensions in the region,” he warned.

Mr. Krähenbühl celebrated UNRWA’s work, observing that even the closest donors and supporters sometimes underestimated the agency’s achievements, adding that UNRWA’s development processes had produced “some of the best indicators – not only in literacy but in development of skills and knowledge.”

He cautioned, however, that the situation on the ground remained unstable and unsustainable and that without a definitive resolution to the 65-year long crisis, UNRWA’s work was at risk.

“This cannot go on like this, without creating further instability. I think we have created a lot of stability in the region. But this can be undermined by conflict in too many areas, by occupation that never ends, and this is why we renew our call for resolute political action, to address once and for all the fate of Palestinian refugees in the region.”