‘They know that they have a home to go back to’

Karen AbuZayd is retiring next month, but that doesn’t mean that she is giving up on Palestine’s refugees.

“I don’t think that’s something one can move away from easily after having been involved for nine years, says AbuZayd, who has been the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) since April 2005.  “Once you begin to work with refugees it begins to take over your life.”

From her headquarters in Gaza, AbuZayd has directed UNRWA’s humanitarian mission in the organization’s five areas of operation: Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.  Last week, she was in Cairo to appeal for funding at the Arab League, to deliver a lecture at the American University in Cairo, and to meet with First Lady Suzanne Mubarak.

Al-Masry Al-Youm sat down with AbuZayd in UNRWA’s Cairo liaison office to discuss the state of her agency and the status of Palestine refugees.

AbuZayd explained that UNRWA was founded in 1949 after the displacement around 700,000 Palestinians in the first Arab-Israeli war. It was supposed to be temporary, but sixty years later it continues to serve as a lifeline for some 4.7 million refugees. UNRWA provides schools, hospitals, food, and other social services. In the Gaza Strip, where two thirds of the population are refugees, 80 percent rely on UNRWA for food according to AbuZayd, who insists that UNRWA isn’t going anywhere soon.

“It will last for as long as there is no settlement in the peace process,” she says, in her hushed, but firm voice. “Even then it will have to be around for a couple of years at least to hand over its structures” and help facilitate the resettlement of Palestine refugees.

Unfortunately, the organization is facing hard times. AbuZayd says that UNRWA had a budget shortfall for this year. “We were still looking for money to pay our salaries last month.” The agency was able to scrape together enough to cover expenses this year, but remains in dire financial shape. “What we have done now over the last year is use up our working capital,” AbuZayd says, “which is not a good thing for an organization to do. We’re actually starting the new year without any working capital.”

The largest donor to UNRWA is the United States, which covers about 25 percent of the organization’s operating budget, while European countries provide about 60 to 70 percent. Arab states are supposed to provide 7.8 percent of UNRWA’s operating budget, according to a target set by the Arab League, though that number is usually much lower.  Israel contributes nothing to UNRWA, except, says AbuZayd, “a little hardship. They make [costs] higher because we have to spend more to do things.”

AbuZayd expressed frustration with the ongoing Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the Gaza Strip, which has been in place since the Islamist militant group Hamas took control there in June 2007.

“We’re not allowed to get in the things that we need to do our work, to do the development that we need to do, to rebuild the things that we need to rebuild, to even carry on our schools,” AbuZayd says. In the wake of Israel’s December 2008/January 2009 assault on the Gaza Strip, Arab states pledged millions of dollars to UNRWA for reconstruction. Most of it hasn’t been used, since basic construction materials are prohibited from entering the Strip.

However AbuZayd doesn’t blame Egypt for the blockade, even though the country refuses to open the border between Sinai and the Gaza Strip and is currently constructing an underground wall to stop smuggling into the besieged Strip. “I think Egypt’s in a very awkward position with the pressures on it from all different sides,” AbuZayd says. “People often ask…why don’t you criticize Egypt?  We appreciate the difficulties of Egypt’s situation.”

Even more fundamental than the blockade, though, is a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In an opinion piece published last week in newspapers around the globe, AbuZayd said she believes that “the prevailing approach fails—or refuses—to accord the refugee issue the attention it deserves.” Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the issue of refugees has been treated along with Jerusalem, water, and borders, as a “final status” question. AbuZayd says this won’t work. 

“All of the issues should be looked at together,” she says. “We have to have a comprehensive approach. You don’t leave some things. And this step-by-step thing hasn’t worked,” she says. For UNRWA and AbuZayd, this means that a conclusion must be reached between the relevant political actors on what rights Palestine refugees have. The answer is clear to AbuZayd.

“Palestine refugees should have the same choices as all refugees. Refugee regimes should not be exceptional for Palestinians.” According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, three options should be presented to all displaced people: resettlement, integration, or return. Ideally, Palestine refugees should have these options. These questions, however, are not as simple as they should be.

“Any other refugees—even ones that stay for 20 years, 30 years somewhere—they know that they have a home to go back to,” says AbuZayd. “This is one of the problems for Palestinians. What was their home is not their home. It’s someone else’s home right now.”

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