Message from the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Karen Koning AbuZayd, on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People
Delivered by Andrew Whitley, Director, UNRWA Representative Office, New York
I regret that I cannot be with you on this important occasion. After nine years of service to UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees, I shall be retiring from my office at the end of the year. Unfortunately, the reason why I cannot join you today is that I am currently on mission in Spain.
This moment - one when hopes of an early breakthrough in the peace process have once again dimmed, and the national polity remains deeply split; one when the blockade of Gaza has persisted with cruel rigour for 28 months, and the inhabitants of Nahr el-Bared along with many other refugees remain homeless - is an appropriate juncture to reflect on the importance of maintaining solidarity with the Palestinian people.
For the most part scattered from their homeland in the refugee camps, villages and cities of the surrounding region, as well as further afield, in all corners of the globe, over the past 62 years Palestinians have shown extraordinary resilience. In the face of considerable adversity they have educated their children and made them vital citizens of the world, without ever losing touch with their collective identity and burning desire for their own national state.
Palestinians' understandable, and fully justified, search for justice has however been matched with pragmatism. Contrary to an often repeated myth, the refugees have not been a passive, aid-dependant group. Rather, given half an opportunity they have seized it, in the process contributing amply to the societies in which they live.
As the fateful story of the partition of Palestine, and the subsequent flight or expulsion of much of the indigenous population, began here in New York with the United Nations, on this day in 1947, let us not forget how much the Palestinian people look to this august body to live up to its convictions, and the many resolutions it has passed in their favour. Hopes of a just and lasting solution may have been dashed many times, but the refugees have not given up hope that, one day, their time will come.
What keeps spirits alive in low moments such as those they have experienced lately is the realization that the vast majority of member states in this global body share Palestinians' belief in the urgency of the need to bring an end to occupation and to exercise their right to self-determination.
The concept of the two-state solution may be looking a little ragged these days; but the alternative - a unitary state in which Palestinians would struggle for equal civil and political rights - is anathema to Israelis and a distant second-best goal for the vast majority of Palestinians, wherever they may live. Thus we must continue to press ahead with efforts to achieve a viable Palestinian state, while remaining vigilant to those unilateral measures that might ultimately render the goal unachievable.
Attention has lately been focused on a series of steps taken by the occupying power in East Jerusalem and in Area C of the West Bank, which remains under full Israeli control, that have made daily life increasingly difficult for Palestinians - among them the most vulnerable such as Bedouin nomads - and call into question the likelihood of being able to bring about a meaningful state, including East Jerusalem. The refugees, who make up about 40 percent of the population of the occupied Palestinian territory, have suffered in equal measure with their non-refugee counterparts from these negative developments.
Despite improved security coordination between the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel, humanitarian access incidents in the West Bank are still running at an unacceptably high level of almost two a day. In the words of the World Bank, the West Bank remains a "shattered economic space," in which its integrity as a viable socio-economic and political unit has been severely compromised.
In Gaza, meanwhile, we meet at a time when hopes are rising that Staff Sergeant Shalit will finally be released, as part of a larger prisoner swap, which will remove yet another pretext for the maintenance of the blockade. Speaking as someone who has lived in Gaza throughout my term with UNRWA, and who has known first-hand the best of its people on so many occasions, the longer the blockade is maintained, the harsher will be the suffering of its people, the deeper will be their grievances, and the more radicalized some will become. Surely that is not an outcome anyone would wish?
Solidarity with a suffering and wronged people can take many forms. It is expressed through lofty speeches on commemorative days such as this. It is seen through the many idealistic volunteers who travel to the West Bank and Gaza to work alongside Palestinians, to bear witness and offer moral and practical support, much as young Westerners used to flock to the kibbutzim of Israel before and soon after the June 1967 War.
It is also shown through the financial support that donor governments and private individuals give generously to voluntarily-funded organizations such as UNRWA that serve the Palestinian people in many concrete ways, to try and provide them with the services, opportunities and decent living conditions that are theirs by right.
On Wednesday this week, we shall have our annual Pledging Conference in the General Assembly. It would be timely, and extremely welcome, if UNRWA was to receive new pledges of support from unexpected quarters or else the announcement of increase in funding from those that have historically underperformed in this respect. The refugees and our 30,000-strong Palestinian staff, who live in great anxiety these days about the prospect of further reductions in their modest living standards, would be enormously relieved.
In closing, allow me to express my fervent conviction that through collective efforts and shared recognition of the justice of the Palestinian case for their own homeland, one day soon that noble goal will be achieved.
I thank you for your attention.