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Press Conference by Commissioner General of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in Near East

Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), urgently appealed today for funding of the Agency's programme in northern Lebanon for the coming 15 months, describing its financial situation as being in "quite desperate straits".

In New York to present the 2007 report on the work of UNRWA to the General Assembly's Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) (see Press Release GA/SPD/413), she told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference that the Agency was "deeply concerned" that its activities in northern Lebanon were at risk. UNRWA had launched the appeal last month for some $42.7 million to help meet the needs of the 27,000 persons uprooted from the Nahr el-Bared Camp, including rent and food for the next 15 months until they could, hopefully, be moved back into the camp again.

She said those internally displaced persons had been living at the camp since last summer when it had been destroyed. UNRWA had been providing them with rental subsidies and food since that time. Since the appeal had been made, UNRWA had received pledges only from the United States for $4.3 million; and from Norway for $500,000. Those pledges would last just until the end of this year, after which the Agency would be hard pressed to feed and shelter the refugees after the beginning of the year 2009.

"So, we're making many appeals to all groups of donors to help UNRWA out as soon as the New Year comes", she said, adding that she had taken advantage of her presence in New York to also brief senior United Nations officials and bring them up to date on what had been happening this year and the Agency's future plans.

On the long-term reconstruction of the Nahr el-Bared Camp and the surrounding areas, she said UNRWA was responsible for rebuilding the "old camp" for the 27,000 people, but there was an additional amount nearly equal to the $280 million that the Agency was asking for to help the areas around the camps, including one which was called the "new camp", which held both refugees and Lebanese.

Additionally, she said there were some six villages which had also been affected by fighting. So it was a very important regional neighbourhood project which would bring the Palestinian camp into the Lebanese security framework and would be a model for bringing stability and quiet to other parts of Lebanon, and, it was hoped, to the other camps, as well.

The good news was that after a year, the Agency had finally begun to remove the rubble from the fairly self-sufficient multi-storey building camp where people had fairly decent housing with most of them employed. That effort had begun on 17 October. When the camp had been destroyed, mounds of rubble had been left in the area, and UNRWA had just been able to get clearance from the Lebanese Government to go into the camp to begin removing the debris. Contracts had now been made both with companies that had armoured vehicles to remove the rubble, as well as a non-governmental organization dealing with mine action. That group -- Handicap International -- would accompany the construction that was removing the rubble, she said.

She told correspondents that the presence of unexploded ordnance and the danger it posed had further complicated the effort, as it meant UNRWA had to be extremely cautious in the way it removed the rubble. The objective would be to remove the rubble from the camp one section at a time so that the rebuilding of the homes could then immediately begin. That effort was part of the Agency's overall aim to reassure the refugees that the camp would be rebuilt and that they would not be dispersed throughout Lebanon, as had happened in the past when such camps had been destroyed.

She said she had been especially gratified to see all the ambassadors from around the world, including from Arab countries. She recalled that Arab countries had indicated willingness to pay for half of the $445 million reconstruction project, but hadn't yet come up with their pledges. She hoped the good turnout was an equally a good sign that those countries were still interested and that they were going to help UNRWA in its effort to bring more stability to Lebanon and for Palestine refugees present in Lebanon. In all its efforts, UNRWA was working closely with the Lebanese Government, the World Bank and with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as well as with the other United Nations agencies.

Turning to the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, she said in Gaza, despite the truce that had been holding for some months now, there had been no real improvement. Such improvement was supposed to be the reward for the truce -- that there would be some opening of the borders, that there would be goods and people that would begin to move in and out of Gaza.

"There has been no real change there, which is a little bit worrying in terms of how the people are going to maintain the truce or extend the truce", she said. So far, there was still interest in extending the truce, in light of the Egyptian-brokered negotiations aimed at ending tensions between the factions in Gaza, including Fattah and Hamas. Meanwhile, she had been encouraged to see that good progress was being made, and the various factions had been meeting among themselves ahead of talks set for 9 November in Egypt.

On the West Bank, she stressed that UNRWA always wanted to remind the international community that there were problems still there, as well, even though most of the attention was somehow always on Gaza, and now, on Lebanon, as well. Despite some improvement in the situation on the West Bank, for example, with the Palestinian security forces taking over, the security regime in Jenin, and despite also some positive economic indicators, there were still quite a lot of problems. Indeed, the number of checkpoints continued to increase this month from 608 to 630. Settlements also continued to grow.

"Our own staff and the refugees that we work with are not seeing a lot of improvement and their conditions; they still have great difficulty moving around", she noted, adding that the whole situation made it very difficult on the economy there and also made UNRWA worried about how viable a Palestinian State could be created in a territory that was so completely fragmented as that one was.

She said UNRWA also had some real concerns about the funding of its activities in the coming year in view of the global financial crisis, and she repeated the call made at the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) meeting that there was need to have commitments to help the poorest of the world and, of course, the refugees were among those.

Asked by a correspondent to clarify UNRWA's position regarding charges contained in a new study on the textbooks used in UNRWA schools in Palestinian refugee camps which apparently contained maps that didn't show Israel, among other charges, she said UNRWA had, in fact, met with the American Jewish Committee earlier in the week and had given her the pamphlet containing the charges. UNRWA had not been aware of the pamphlet until then, and apparently the Committee itself had just found out about it prior to the meeting.

However, she said the controversy over textbooks was an issue that UNRWA had dealt with over and over. It was an issue that had been described many ways over the years concerning what the Palestinian Authority had done to reform the textbooks, by going through them carefully to produce books which UNRWA understood, from all the scholars the Agency had asked -- including Israeli, American and other scholars -- were among the best in the Middle East after they had been amended.

"These are what seem to us to have been old accusations that we have to look at again because as we understand these aren't things that are still present in the textbooks", she said. It was true, however, that Israel did not appear in the textbooks maps, "as the West Bank and Gaza do not often appear in the maps of an Israeli publication". She said it was an issue that UNRWA would be looking at now that it had the new pamphlet presented to it.

Asked by another correspondent if UNRWA had actually seen any decrease in funding yet because of the financial crisis, Ms. AbuZayd said there had been no decrease thus far. The Agency had its annual donors meeting at the end of November and had been canvassing all its donors to see whether they would be reassuring or give UNRWA a "warning". For the most part, however, almost all the donors had said they would be maintaining their commitment equal to what they had given UNRWA this year. "That is not enough, since we have more refugees every year, and, of course, we have the emergencies that seem to grow too", she added.

For information media - not an official record