Washington Report, January/February 2006, pages 67-68
The Future of Palestinian Refugees
DR. PETER Hansen, former commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), discussed “A Changing United Nations: The Future of Palestinian Refugees,” on Oct. 26, at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC.
Dr. Hansen opened his talk by addressing the expectations that have been placed on both Israeli and Palestinian representatives. While the world showed sympathy for the political difficulties Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faced in Israel regarding the Gaza withdrawal not a word was said by Sharon regarding the situation of the Palestinian President Abu Mazen ”as if he was under no pressure to deliver, and as if he was not living through an existential political crisis of his own.” To underestimate Abu Mazen’s difficulties is just another way to ignore the legitimate demands and needs of the other side, Hansen said.
The situation is getting even worse in Gaza, Hansen warned. Gaza needs trade and investment. “If you cannot get your goods out and your raw materials in” or interact freely with the world, there is “no way in which either trade or foreign direct investment is going to flourish.”
At this point, said Dr. Hansen, Palestine does “not have much by way of a future economic platform that would attract any foreign investor.” The current roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank, he said, “are enough to make a functioning economy a bit of joke.”
Currently, he said, the international community has pledged a lot of money to help refugees in Palestine. He said he wished more of it “would actually go there, and would actually be productively utilized.” Referencing statistics about UNRWA aid to Palestinian refugees, Dr. Hansen said that in the 1970s, UNRWA was giving each refugee $200 per year and by the 1990s and early into this decade, the number had dropped to $70 per year. He criticized the West’s blaming Arab countries for not contributing enough and said that money needed to come from all of those who could afford to help.
If the international community would “up the ante and live up to all the promises and pledges being made,” he said, then the Palestinian Authority (PA) and UNRWA could do more to aid the Palestinian refugees.
He noted that the relationship between the PA and UNRWA is a particularly important one considering that UNRWA has formal responsibility for more than 70 percent of the population in Gaza and more than 40 percent of those in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In the future, said Dr. Hansen, the PA must take over UNRWA “capacities” in the West Bank and Gaza. But to do so now, he warned, would be damaging because “that would mean giving up the symbolic value that the U.N.’s heavy presence with UNRWA in the occupied territories means to the Palestinians and to the refugees.”
Some have suggested that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should take over responsibility for the Palestinian refugees but Dr. Hansen believes that it would not be practical. Those “who are now under the care of UNRWA, [and] would have no protection in the 1951 [Geneva] Convention’s sense of refugee protection,” he stated, “would not get such protection under UNHCR.”
Dr. Hansen concluded on an optimistic note. ”It will be possible to find solutions, and improve the condition for everybody in that unhappy region, which of course includes also Israel.”