(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • 'We can't have another year like this'

    Schools open on time.

    It hardly sounds like news, but for half a million Palestinian refugee children it certainly is.

    On Wednesday, the UN body that looks after Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, announced it had overcome a $101 million deficit and the school year wouldn’t have to be delayed after all.

    After a desperate funding drive, Gulf Arab countries and the United States filled the gap, but with more refugees, growing needs and little new donor money, the underlying problems remain. It is clear the agency must make radical changes to avoid being in the same situation next year.

    IRIN sat down with UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl to find out how the agency overcame what he said was its “most serious financial crisis ever” and what he plans to do to keep it out of trouble for good.

    In a wide-ranging interview, he addresses new school class sizes, the organisation's financial situation and protests against his leadership.

     

    On Wednesday, you announced that UNWRA schools would start on time. Do you now have enough money to guarantee they will be open for the entire academic year?

    I think we’re good for this year because we have roughly $80 million out of the $101 that we needed. So we have an outstanding contribution by the European Union… We may need one or two other donors, but I think essentially we’re there.

    You have raised the class numbers you use for planning in UNRWA schools to 50 children. How will this affect how many teachers you employ?

    We don't know yet because the class formation exercise hasn't been completed. It’s still being finalised. They’re going to complete it now for the West Bank and Gaza, now that they know the school year will open. There are still debates around that, among teachers, unions and others, but it has to be understood first of all the ceiling of 50 existed already a few years ago, so it is a ceiling that has been used in the past. The average will probably be somewhere around 41 or 42. That is compared to an average of previous years around 38, 37. It’s obviously an increase in the number of children per classroom, so in principle you should have fewer teachers in some places, but for the moment we don't have the full picture on that. 

    This does seem to be an ongoing problem with UNRWA – funding comes in at the last minute and every few years there is a financial crisis. We know needs are increasing and funding is short, so what kind of long-term changes are you considering in how the agency works to avoid this?

    There are very few agencies in the humanitarian system that don’t have deficits or funding shortfalls against needs, but the thing about this year is that never before had it put our immediate core activities – and particularly our flagship education program – at risk. That’s unprecedented. So I need everybody to understand that this is not just another financial deficit year, it’s a year where we came much closer than we ever should have to having the school year delayed – not because of war like last year in Gaza – but a funding shortfall. That should never have happened.

    We should never again be in a situation where the school year is at risk. That will require, again, a certain number of internal steps and outreach to donors and there will be a series of meetings taking place that we will try to organise with the League of Arab States, certainly also at the United Nations General Assembly and High Level Segment Week we will try to have ministerial events so we can try to have a proper discussion with the donor countries and institutions that have been most engaged with us to say ‘this [cost-cutting measure] is our contribution but now we really count on you to be able to establish a more predictable form of funding for UNRWA’s core services,’ because we cannot allow the instability, uncertainty and anxiety… to happen again.

    We are not complaining about the funding levels that we have, because we have $1.2 billion [a year] – that’s a big amount of money. But it’s closing the gap between the increased needs resulting from the community and increasing contributions but at a lower level by donors. We need to increase the predictability. What is difficult for UNRWA is that we have these long-term programmes – because we are not only an emergency actor, some of our expenditures don’t fluctuate. They are there, as it is for a ministry in a country. 

    Can you tell me any specific details of further cost-cutting measures that you will take internally?

    No, because now the 2016 budget process is currently under way. So when we go through that we will.

    No specific cuts or changes we haven’t heard about?

    Well, you’re asking me the day after we resolved this. So you’ll have to accept that right now – and I’ll have no problem to list those once we’ve decided them.

    There are various proposals out there about how UNRWA could move forward more efficiently. For example, it is often suggested that because the majority of Jordanian Palestinian refugees are also citizens of Jordan and eligible for state services, UNRWA could make a huge budget cut if it were to end services there.

    We are not [going to end] services in any of our fields for two different reasons. One is we have a mandated responsibility, and people sometimes forget that dimension. We are mandated to deliver services for Palestinian refugees in these five fields of operation… at the end of the day the mandate is a General Assembly mandate so we can’t redesign the fields in which we operate and make that kind of distinction.

    And I think it would be seriously underestimating the current pressures that exist on hosts, as a result of all of the other instability in the region. What we saw with the education program is reducing the services to Palestinian refugees and failing to address their dignity and other aspects of their rights is a risk the world can’t take, because not only is there an issue in and of itself of the unresolved conflict here between Israel and Palestine with the occupation and all the rest, but there is also an instability in the Middle East that should lead people to reflect very, very carefully on the costs of reducing the services currently available to Palestinian refugees, who already have very limited prospects in life and a very challenging future. Certainly, I think if one would ask the Jordanian authorities, they would have very strong views on any reductions and have always advocated that, and so we are not at all looking along those lines.  

     

     

    What about means-testing, either asking those Palestinian refugees who can pay for services to contribute some amount or re-evaluating who qualifies for services based on need?

    We have been operating for a number of years as an agency on the fact that you have a status – that doesn't mean that because you are a registered refugee that everybody applies for services. A very good example was Syria before the war. 560,000 Palestine refugees in Syria, a very small amount of them applying for UNRWA services other than sending their children to schools... Otherwise, most refugees were self-sufficient because in the Syrian context most Palestine refugees were welcome: they had employment, they had their own businesses, they were self-sufficient in that sense.

    I’ve met so many people in Gaza who used to be employed, who used to employ 10, 20, 50 people in their businesses and were covering their needs, and today they are dependent on UNRWA food distribution.  Why? Not because they have a status, but because there is a blockade. So it is the circumstances that dictate: blockade in Gaza, conflict in Syria. Today, the Palestine refugee community in Syria is 95 percent dependent on UNRWA. That was never the case previously. So when people look at UNRWA and entitlement and needs-testing, actually to be honest, I’d say if we did needs-based our budget would be much larger. 

    Does UNRWA have any debt? 

    No, we don't have debt, but we don't have reserves either, and that’s a much bigger issue… I’ve worked in other agencies in the humanitarian system, and for an organisation that spends $1.2 billion a year with just about $1 million in reserve means that if donors shut down entirely you could operate for an afternoon, so that’s just not sustainable. We have to be able to rebuild a more solid financial footing,

    As part of your cost-cutting measures you let go many international staff. Some of these staffers were particularly successful in bringing in grants. As this means less money long-term, isn’t this cutting off the legs to save the body?

    Whenever you have to cut a contract it hurts for the agency, it hurts for the people involved. There was somebody very talented in my executive office who we decided to let go…But when you are in a crisis of $100 million, your options need to include decisions across the board.

    One of the areas we did not preserve is the area of fundraising because when you have the education programme at risk, there’s no area that can be preserved anymore… So there was no doubt in my mind that we needed to include these tough decisions. It was painful and when you take those kinds of decisions it is legitimate for people to challenge you. It’s completely understood that when you take difficult decisions not everybody’s going to be in agreement with it, not just because those who are concerned personally but even others. As we saw in these last weeks there were some very strong debates among staff, on Facebook pages; there were peaceful demonstrations which I think is good because it’s a sign of solidarity, but there was also some very clear criticism of management, leadership, individuals including myself, and you know that when you enter a time of crisis you are going to have some of that. I accept that completely.

     

     

    Parts of this interview have been condensed for brevity

     

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  • Film: Gaza fire

    More than a year since a devastating war between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, whole communities remain affected.

    The conflict left more than 2,000 Palestinians and 71 Israelis dead, while Israel's aerial bombardment of Gaza left 18,000 homes destroyed.

    The Palestinian enclave's fire service was on the front line - desperately trying to save people caught in the fighting. One year on, Gaza's firefighters are battling not just flames - but politics, salary shortages and a chronic lack of equipment.

    Watch IRIN's new film: Gaza Fire.

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    Film: Gaza fire
  • Four facts you might not know about housing demolitions by Israel

    The small Palestinian village of Khirbet Susiya in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has been drawn into the international spotlight this week, as the US, the UK and the EU condemned plans by the Israeli army to demolish it. The US State Department said its destruction would be “harmful and provocative.” 

    So far the Israeli government has shown no sign it will back off, and activists and locals are sleeping in structures in the village in case the bulldozers come.

    Susiya, which sits in an Israeli army controlled section of the West Bank called Area C, is set for demolition because it lacks the building permissions that are nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain.

    READ THE FULL STORY OF SUSIYA

    The villagers of Susiya are far from the only Palestinians whose homes face imminent destruction. Here are some facts about demolition in Israel and the occupied West Bank that you might not know:

    There’s more than one type of demolition

    Buildings can be destroyed for both “administrative” and “punitive” reasons.

    Susiya is in trouble because it doesn’t meet planning requirements, and so faces “administrative” demolition. This is the case for most homes that are razed in the West Bank, including the majority of those in Area C.

    For example, the Israeli army has demolished 243 Palestinian-owned structures in Area C and annexed East Jerusalem so far this year because they were deemed to have been built illegally (without the correct permissions) – 39 of these were in East Jerusalem. The total number of similar demolitions for the same area in 2014 was 493.

    But Israel also conducts “punitive” demolitions, bulldozing the homes of Palestinians involved in attacks on Israeli civilians. According to statistics from the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, 664 homes were destroyed as punishment between October 2001 and the end of 2004. The punitive demolitions were meant to be a deterrent, but a 2005 military committee found that they didn’t serve the intended purpose and were of questionable legality.

    The practice was halted until last year, when Israel demolished four homes and sealed one off. The buildings belonged to the families of men suspected of abducting and killing three Israeli teenagers who were hitchhiking in the West Bank. According to B’Tselem, the demolitions left 27 people homeless, including 13 minors.

    This year, no punitive demolitions have taken place, but earlier this month Israel evacuated and sealed off the East Jerusalem family home of a man who took part in an attack on a synagogue that killed four worshippers and a police officer. The attacker had also been killed during the incident in the autumn of 2014.

    Demolition happens inside Israel too

    Administrative demolitions take place inside Israel too, mostly in Bedouin villages not recognised by the state. According to a recent report commissioned by Israel’s public security ministry, this type of destruction is one the rise. In 2013, 697 Bedouin structures were evacuated or torn down in 2013. In 2014, the number rose to 1,073.

    The Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran, in the southern Negev desert, are the latest villagers of this sort to get attention for their plight. The Israeli government plans to build a new Jewish town on the state land where the Bedouin have lived for 60 years, and after more than a decade of legal battles there seems to be little that can be done to stop it.

    The state says it has set aside space for the residents of Umm al-Hiran, who are Israeli citizens, in a nearby Bedouin town. Most villagers refuse this option.

    Jewish settlements can also be targeted

    Jewish settlements in Area C are also subject to demolition. Settlers in the West Bank are under a different planning regime than Palestinians, and it is significantly easier for them to build legally. But extensions to Jewish settlements called “outposts” often spring up without government sanction and these can be condemned to come down.

    However, demolition orders are both handed down and carried out at an unequal rate, according to government figures acquired by freedom of information requests by settlement researcher and activist Dror Etkes.

    Since 1988, the state of Israel has issued 14,782 demolition orders for Palestinian structures and less than half that number, 7,091, for Jewish ones, the figures say.

    To make that disparity worse, 14.2 percent of Palestinian structures with demolition orders are actually taken down, opposed to just 6.5 percent of Jewish structures.

     

    It’s not just about bricks and mortar

    The UN’s aid coordination body, OCHA, says 280 Palestinians have been left homeless by the 243 demolitions that have taken place this year. Six Palestinians have been displaced this week alone.

    The humanitarian impact of Israel’s demolition campaign is far-reaching. According to OCHA and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, housing demolition leads to a significant deterioration in living conditions for affected families. It can cut off those affected from access to clean water, education, sanitation, and other basic services. In Susiya, there is a concern that the solar panels that generate a limited amount of electricity for the village will be demolished, eliminating the villagers’ only source of power.

    A 2009 report on home demolition in the West Bank by UK charity Save the Children found that it is extremely difficult for families to bounce back after being uprooted. More then half the families it surveyed took at least two years to find a permanent place to stay.

    Children are hit particularly hard. Kids whose homes are destroyed are more likely to suffer a range of mental health problems including depression and anxiety, or fall into delinquency and exhibit violent behaviour.

    Save the Children also singled out the mental state of parents as a cause for concern, while OCHA noted that "the impact on families’ psychosocial well-being can be devastating."

     

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  • Can the UN's agency for Palestinians be fixed?

    Facing what its commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl called its “most serious financial crisis ever,” this week the UN agency for Palestinian refugees announced it would let go around 100 foreign employees on short-term contracts, roughly half of all its international employees.

    Dealing with emergencies in Syria and Gaza and having lost $25 million to currency exchange fluctuations overnight, UNRWA is $101 million in debt and faces a $330 million shortfall in its $680 million annual budget.  

    Financial woes have plagued the agency, which is responsible for the medical care, education, and welfare of registered Palestinian refugees, since it was formed in 1950 as a temporary measure, but this crisis is the worst to date.

    In part, this is due to a growth in needs. The number of people in Gaza relying on the agency for food aid shot up from 80,000 in 2000 to 860,000 in 2014. 

    What, if anything, can be done to fix the frequently broke agency?

    New money?

    The most straightforward approach might appear to be to search for additional sources of funding.

    UNRWA gets little funding from the main UN pot so relies largely on donations from countries, NGOs and some private donors. Historically, the United States and the European Union have provided the bulk.

    But faced with conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Nepal and the Ebola crisis in West Africa, traditional donors are cash-strapped.

    “We are in a situation of unprecedented crises,” explained a European diplomat in Jerusalem. Other crises “absorb a lot of funding and there are very definite constraints on the part of donors to manage this.”

    So might UNRWA turn elsewhere? Gulf countries have upped their support for emergency appeals, but Zizette Darkazally, UNRWA’s spokeswoman in Lebanon, said the agency is looking for more funding for their core budget. “We hope the Arab countries, given their history here, [will] play a significant role,” she said.

    The agency is also leaning on the emerging BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies: Krähenbühl spent much of the last week in Russia, which in 2015 contributed $2 million dollars to the agency. He will also visit China and Brazil.

    Cutting services?

    But, barring a major Gulf splurge, any new funding is unlikely to be sufficient.

    UNRWA has already cut back on international consultants, implemented a hiring freeze, and is offering staff what amounts to early retirement packages. Programs like a cash-for-rent scheme for Palestinians from Syria are on hold

    Rex Brynen, professor at McGill University and an expert on Palestinian refugee issues, said that there were really no easy cuts left.

    “They have trimmed optional staff positions and [other] programs … it is not as if UNRWA still has a large number of optional programs left [to cut],” he said.

    As such, Darkazally said, the next target for cuts is one of the agency’s core services: education.

    UNRWA runs more than 700 schools in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon. They are the only option for many Palestinians, but take up 60 percent of UNRWA’s regular budget. 

    Planned class sizes will be brought up to 50, from 40 to 45, allowing a modest cutback in teaching staff. Darkazally said they were even discussing delaying the start of the school year.

    “Everything is being thought of at the moment,” she said.

     

     

    Internal reform?

    To avoid such devastating cuts, are there reforms that UNRWA could make or radical solutions it could adopt?

    Donor pressure forced UNRWA to make its finances more transparent in the 1990s, and Jalal al-Husseini, associate researcher at French Institute for the Near East in Jordan, said some countries are still pressuring for a faster pace of internal reform.

    Major changes in the past ten years include a decentralization that has allowed local offices to act with more autonomy, but UNRWA’s bureaucracy remains notoriously bloated.

    UN audits of UNRWA from the past three years show the organisation accurately represents its finances, while, unsurprisingly, pointing out a cash flow problem.

    The most recent available audit, from the year 2013, suggested improvements including changing how tenders are processed at the Amman office, and called for an anti-fraud policy document to guide staff in reporting suspected corruption. 

    Sari Hanafi, a sociologist at the American University of Beirut, called the agency a “huge bureaucratic machine” and proposed a more “participatory approach”.

    He suggested a model developed in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Faced with tough budget decisions and inequality, the region devolved authority over some of its budgets to residents. UNRWA’s role as a Palestinian agency – almost all the 30,000 strong UNRWA staff are refugees themselves – might make a more participatory approach realistic.

    “It involves citizens in budgeting decisions, with the idea that they will make the hard decisions when they see what the options are,” he said. “With limited resources, involving people shows them where the money is coming from."

    The radical options

    There are even more radical solutions, which would likely involve a renegotiation of UNRWA’s mandate.

    Among them has been phasing out services to the nearly two million Palestinian refugees who have become citizens of Jordan since 1948. This proposal was floated by James G. Lindsay, UNRWA general counsel from 2002-2007, in his 2009 report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy - “Fixing UNRWA.”

    Already hosting refugees from Iraq and Syria, it would place a heavy burden on Jordananian hospitals and schools. Lindsay, however, proposes this could be balanced with targeted foreign aid.

    There are reasons to doubt such a solution is viable. For many Palestinians, the option is politically untenable. Many consider registration and affiliation with UNRWA as symbolic placeholder for the “right to return.” Likewise, while donor countries and Israel may have their disagreements with UNRWA, many see it as a stabilizing force and would probably object to a withdrawal from Jordan. As an important ally of Israel and the west that is facing its own battle with Islamic radicalisation, Jordan’s objections would likely be heard. For his part, Brynen calls the Jordan option “politically impossible.”

    Lindsay also proposes a shift to needs testing for services, requiring Palestinians who can to pay for at least some of their education and health care. He writes that, “no justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services.”

    UNRWA rejected a draft of the report as a misunderstanding of the agency’s mandate.

    But it is increasingly clear that if donors aren’t willing to reach deeper into their pockets each year, the 65-year-old UNRWA needs a profound rethink if it is to continue to serve a population still desperately in need. 

     

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  • Will the UN’s Gaza report force change?

    A United Nations investigation accusing Israel and Palestinian armed groups of alleged war crimes in last summer’s Gaza conflict caused a stir on Monday.

    The report singled out Israel for its use of explosive weapons with wide-ranging effects in heavily populated areas and said Palestinian militants sent rockets indiscriminately into Israel.

    Both Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Hamas hit back at the Committee of Inquiry’s report immediately, with Israel calling the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which commissioned the report,  “a notoriously biased institution.” Hamas denied any culpability for war crimes. 

    So will the report – which includes details of both Israeli and Palestinian militant practices that targeted civilians – lead to real change?

    The case for no

    Those who argue it won’t can point to one obvious precedent.

    In September 2009, a Human Rights Council fact-finding mission – headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone – issued a report on the 2008-2009 Gaza war – accusing both Hamas and Israel of deliberately targeting civilians.

    UNHRC and General Assembly endorsed the report, but the Security Council never debated the issue. As such, the case was never sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

    Anthony Dworkin, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and an expert on war crimes said that although nothing concrete came out of the controversial Goldstone Report, "it was the first time that a kind of potentially credible international body had looked at Israel's military standards."

    Then in 2011, Goldstone famously himself backed away from the report’s conclusion that Israel purposely targeted civilians. His former colleagues stood by their findings.

    Yossi Mekelberg, Associate Fellow at the Chatham House think-tank, said Goldstone's retraction caused "big harm,” to the reputation of UNHRC.  

    For many, then, this latest document is likely to be just another Goldstone Report.

    Hugh Lovatt, coordinator of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Israel/Palestine programme, said: “The international community [was] not wiling to enforce these recommendations [in past reports], which leads to the undermining of international law itself.” 

    Chances of the report sparking change from within Israel are small as UNHRC’s reputation within the country is pretty awful.

    The council has long faced accusations of anti-Israel bias – critics argue disproportionate focus has been placed on the country, and note the past prominent membership of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya.

    So within Israel, many automatically dismiss the findings, according to Robbie Sabel, a law professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and a former legal advisor to Israel’s team at the UN.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the report was typical when he attacked UNHRC, saying: “The commission that wrote it is under a committee that does everything but protect human rights.”

    Sabel said the council is now seen as “so biased it will be ignored by Israel,” meaning there would be “no practical results” from the report, which he called “warped.”

    The case for yes

    Yet for others there are reasons to be positive that the report could have an impact in a way that Goldstone’s couldn’t.

    This is because in April Palestine officially became a member of the ICC in the face of opposition from the US and Israel.

    The ICC has opened a preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine, the step that determines whether there is basis to continue to a full investigation, and later this week the Palestinian Authority plans to submit evidence to the court – of which Israel is not a member -- on last summer’s war. After Goldstone's report the Security Council would have been needed to ask for ICC intervention, but this is no longer necessary.

    Although the report does not mention the ICC examination – aside from recommending that Israel join the court – Lovatt suggests “such a document could form the basis for further proceedings at the ICC.” A Palestinian government source told IRIN that he did not know if the report would be included in this week’s submission, but he was “sure that the ICC already has the report and they are looking into it.”

    ECFR's Dworkin said that while the report would not have a legal impact on the ICC, it may very well influence how the prosecutor goes forward. "This one additional element that will be there when the office of the prosecution decides how to proceed. In itself it wont change anything or have direct consequences but it will feed into ongoing debate and climate of opinion in which the prosecutor makes its decision."

    Sabel, however, argued the report “cannot be used as evidence at the ICC.”

    Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat issued a statement Monday, saying Palestine would review the report. “As we begin to do so, we urge the international community to recall that the only true path to peace lies in ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967, and in ending crime and the impunity with which it continues to be perpetrated against our people.”

    For Chatham House’s Mekelberg, there is another key difference from 2009 in that the world has become increasingly frustrated with the intransigence of Netanyahu’s government. This, he said, might lead countries to push harder for change.

    “I sense the change, whether it will materialize into something real I don’t know.”

    Mekelberg argued that whether or not the council itself is flawed, the documentation of human rights abuses by both Hamas and Israel is useful. 

    "At the end of the day I think anyone that looks at what happened last year in Gaza knows there were violations ... [this report] should encourage the international community to put more effort into ending this conflict otherwise there will be another round."

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  • Time for a new deal for Middle East's displaced?

    Conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen are leading to unprecedented numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Middle East and North Africa, and increasingly complex and severe humanitarian crises.

    According to the 2015 global report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), more people were newly displaced last year within their own borders in the Middle East than in Central Africa and South Asia put together.

    Yet, while Africa has had a continent-wide instrument legally binding governments to protect the rights of IDPs since 2012, there is no such framework in place in the Middle East, where few countries have national policies on internal displacement.

    On paper, the rights of IDPs globally are recognised by the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, under which governments are obliged to protect their citizens.

    This differs from people who cross borders and become refugees. Their rights are enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

    READ MORE: Analysis: Refugee or IDP: does it really matter?

    In practice, in spite of the Guiding Principles, IDPs often fall through the cracks and receive little assistance, as is currently happening with families in Iraq and Syria, where IDMC estimates combined internal displacement to be close to 10 million.

    Time for a new regional approach?

    Given the region’s growing caseload of IDPs, and the associated economic and social threats this poses, is it time for governments in the Middle East to draft and implement their own version of the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (commonly known as the Kampala Convention after the city where it was signed)?

    One thing which struck me during my recent missions to Syria and Iraq is how little prepared national governments are to respond to the needs of IDPs.

    “Fundamentally, it’s a question of national responsibility, and the way in which governments deal with IDPs varies a lot,” said Beth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement.

    “It would be great if governments in the region could come together to at least confirm the importance of the issue, and to work together and develop some kind of common standard.”

    The UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs, Chaloka Beyani, also backed calls for a more formal, legalised regional response in the Middle East.

    “The Kampala Convention in Africa offers to member states a framework based on international law that they can adopt and then implement… Such a framework would be important for the Middle East too,” he told IRIN.

    “One thing which struck me during my recent missions to Syria and Iraq is how little prepared national governments are to respond to the needs of IDPs.”

    Beyani said that until now governments in the Middle East had “shown little appetite” to develop legislation and policies on internal displacement, and that Iraq, which did develop a national policy on this issue in 2008, has not applied it during the current crisis, which he said was “a missed opportunity.”


    ReShaping Aid

    However, the tide may be turning.

    The sheer number of internally uprooted families across the region, on top of the ever-growing exodus of Syrian refugees to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, could be a catalyst for governments to start more joined-up conversations about displacement.

    The upcoming World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) may also have a role to play.

    Beyani said that at the MENA WHS consultation in Amman in March, there was “a growing recognition of the importance of having more predictable mechanisms in place in the region to deal with internal displacement.”

    “There is a lot of hope that the WHS will call for stronger regional approaches, including regional normative frameworks on IDPs,” agreed Ferris.

    But she cautioned that a lack of political will from governments themselves could prevent any big changes happening overnight.

    According to Alfredo Zamudio, director of IDMC, states themselves are often the “main drivers of displacement.” He mentioned Iraq, Syria, and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) as examples.

    “Displacement has been used by governments as well as non-state armed groups as a war strategy often attempting to alter demographics, [and] such countries are therefore unlikely to be motivated to create a legally binding instrument on IDPs.”

    However, Zamudio agreed that the “current magnitude” of displacement in the region might make states “more inclined to engage in discussion on the creation of a regional framework.”

    And, he added, the growing role of Gulf countries in funding local humanitarian responses, such as Saudi Arabia’s US$500million to Iraq in 2014 and Qatar’s funding for the Palestinians, could also play a role in putting displacement higher up the regional agenda.

    Beyani believes the WHS, due to take place in Istanbul in June next year, is “a tremendous opportunity” to ensure IDPs are “put at the centre of our response.”

    “The Guiding Principles are still extremely relevant to how we can respond to internal displacement,” he said.

    “What the WHS can do is reaffirm the importance of the Guiding Principles to guide our response through a rights-based approach, and urge regions and national governments to adopt their own binding legislation and policies on internal displacement.”

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  • The Catch-22 for Palestinian villages in the West Bank

    A small collection of shelters in the sweltering heat of the south Hebron hills, the village of Khirbet Susiya has barely enough electricity to power a fan, yet it has become a major Israeli-Palestinian flashpoint.

    In recent weeks it has hosted a steady stream of visitors – even establishing a small “solidarity” centre offering tea and flyers titled “Save Susiya” in Arabic and Hebrew. Activists from various groups – including left-wing Israelis – stop by to offer support.

    For Susiya is set to become the latest Palestinian village to be destroyed by Israel after a court ruling. Residents like Nasser Nawaja, the village’s unofficial spokesperson, are wondering if and when the bulldozers will arrive.  

    “I think the state wants to demolish us,” he says.

    The second Susiya

    The position of the 350 residents here is emblematic of the Catch-22 situation facing many Palestinians in this part of the West Bank. To avoid their homes being destroyed, the villagers need a state-approved plan or building permit. But, for Palestinians at least, such permits are nigh on impossible to get.

    According to the Israeli group Bimkom – Planners for Human Rights, between 2002 and 2012, out of 3,565 Palestinian applications for building permits just 210 were approved. With the success rate so low, many feel discouraged and applications are on the downturn. There are no available statistics about illegal Palestinian building.

    For a rough contrast, Peace Now reports that in the same period more than 17,000 residential units were build in Jewish settlements, with or without permits.

     

    Susiya has applied both for multiple permits to build and for recognition from Israel's Civil Administration. Both were denied, leaving it among the roughly 90 percent of Palestinian villages in this area without formal government permission to exist.

     

    “It isn’t easy to live in a tent, without protection from the heat or cold,” explains Nawaja. “We want to build and lead normal lives.”

    And so they built without permits. Nothing too extravagant – small kitchens to their semi-detached tents, cement floors – steps to make life in the extreme weather conditions more bearable. But it is this building that is the justification for destroying the village.

    A few hundred yards away, there is a second Susiya. This one is occupied by Jewish settlers and has been granted all the necessary permits.

    The contrast between the two is stark. The Jewish Susiya is neat rows of homes with red pointed roofs, the Palestinian one communal outhouses and worn tarpaulin.

    Two decades in the making

    The dual system dates back to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in the Arab-Israel war of 1967, but was altered by the 1995 Oslo II Accords, which were supposed to lead to lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

    The agreement separated the West Bank into three parts – A, B, and C. Area A, including Ramallah, Bethlehem and other major Palestinian cities, is under control of the Palestinian Authority and Israeli civilians are technically forbidden from entry. Area B is under Palestinian governance but Israeli security control. And Area C, where Susiya falls, is under complete Israeli control, and administered by a branch of the Israeli Army called the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, part of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

     

     The divisions were supposed to be interim, with part of Area C  – now 60 percent of the West Bank – eventually to be given to the Palestinians. But the peace plan fell apart, and the situation of the two Susiyas highlights in bold the separate laws for Jews and Palestinians living in Area C.

    Home to between 150,000 and 300,000 Palestinians, this segment of the West Bank is of particular interest to Israel’s right wingers, as it is the location of all of Israel’s 355,000 person strong settlements, deemed illegal by the United Nations.

    To live in accordance with Israeli law in Area C, both Israeli and Palestinian dwellings must have approved plans. The territory operates under a 1966 Jordanian planning law, but starting in 1971, the Israeli military issued a series of orders that eliminated local involvement for Palestinians in planning and set up “Special Planning Committees” for settlers, effectively establishing two systems – one for Palestinians, and one for Israelis.

    For Palestinians, this has meant it is incredibly difficult to receive permission to build, and so they do so off the electricity or water grids, without permission and often in a haphazard way. Amnesty International recently said the dual planning system has “led to decades of human rights violations.”  

    Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, has proposed that Israel annex Area C, where he approximates only 50,000 Palestinians make their homes. This would entail Israel claiming the entire territory and forcing the Palestinians to accept Israeli nationality and rule or leave. 

    On the edge

    For Susiya, the result may be destruction, and not for the first time. The villagers were expelled in the 1980s – from the caves where they lived then – to make way for archaeological exploration of an ancient Jewish historical site. In the cave where Nawaja was born, visitors watch a video on the area’s Jewish past. 

     

    Even the demolition of structures deemed illegal is two-tiered - with twice as many Palestinian homes destroyed as Jewish ones

     

    Since then, they have been moved and seen their houses razed to the ground multiple times – some 70 demolition orders have been issued in total.

    With the help of several nonprofits, including an Israeli group called Rabbis for Human Rights, the village submitted a master plan to the civil administration authority, hoping to build on the lands they own. They were rejected, and the case is under appeal in the Supreme Court. Usually, pending such an appeal, an interim injunction order is issued to stop the demolition. But in late April, the judge – a settler – issued no such order. 

    Even the demolition of structures deemed illegal is two-tier. According to government figures acquired by freedom of information requests by settlement researcher and activist Dror Etkes, historically the state has issued 14,782 demolition orders for Palestinian structures and 7,091 for Jewish ones.

    The authorities also raze Palestinian structures declared illegal at more than twice the rate of similarly adjudged Jewish structures, such as settlement outposts –14.2 percent of Palestinian structures with demolition orders are taken down, opposed to just 6.5 percent of Jewish structures.

    COGAT declined to give a full interview, but did provide IRIN with a statement. It said: “The present case refers to a group of illegal houses, next to Susiya's archeological site, which expanded throughout the years… despite the stop-work orders which were delivered to the buildings at the site. This presents a clear violation of the interim orders which were given during the hearings held on this issue in the Supreme Court.”

    “The story of Susiya is the story of Area C,” Nawaja says. A story, which he believes, has largely been overlooked. “The world talks about human rights, but never about our right to just live here.”

    Several nongovernmental organisations have turned to the Supreme Court to challenge the Area C planning system itself. The cases are ongoing, but there isn’t a great deal of hope.

    In Susiya, villagers sleep in the solidarity centre at night in case the army comes. They have planted modest flower and herb gardens, a sign that they are in it for the long haul.

    Nawaja is frustrated but undeterred. In the legal battle, the state has proposed villagers move to an area that straddles Area A. But the Susiya villagers have no interest in leaving their land, and will continue to fight.

    “I don’t know,” Nawaja says, shaking his head. “Here there are two laws, one for settlers and one for Palestinians, but we all live in the same place.”

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    Catch-22 for Palestinians in West Bank
  • Which countries are failing to deliver Gaza aid?

    Gulf Arab states and Turkey have spectacularly failed to fulfill their pledges to Gaza, contributing to a two-thirds shortfall in promised assistance to the beleaguered enclave, a new report reveals. 

    Qatar has delivered just 10 percent of the $1 billion it promised, while Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait between them have handed over just over $50 million of the $900 million they pledged, according to a new World Bank report.

    Last summer’s war between Israel, Hamas and other Islamist militants killed more than 2,000 Palestinians – mostly civilians – and left more than 100,000 homeless by the time of an August ceasefire.

    Despite concerns about political instability and the possibility of renewed conflict, the international community came out in force at an October conference in Cairo, promising $3.5 billion to help Gaza rebuild. 

    The release of the World Bank’s numbers comes a month after UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, said that not a single one of the more than 5,000 completely destroyed homes in Gaza had been rebuilt. 

    Big donors come up short

    Although $5.4 billion was widely vaunted as the takeaway figure from the Cairo conference, only $3.5 billion of it was actually allocated to Gaza. 

    As of late April, donors had given only 27.5 percent of the promised $3.5 billion, or $967 million.

    However, only 35 percent of the aid pledged - or $1.2 billion - was actually fresh, with the majority coming from reallocated donations and emergency funding delivered as the bombs were still falling. Of this new aid, just 13.5 percent - or $165 million - has come through (see chart below). 

     

     

    Qatar pledged $1 billion for Gaza and has delivered 10 percent; Saudi Arabia has given only 10 percent of its promised $500 million. Turkey and Kuwait both pledged $200 million: the former has produced only $520,000, and the latter none. 

    Other top pledges included the United Arab Emirates’ $200 million, which the World Bank said no data was available for, the United States' $277 million pledge, which is 84 percent delivered, and the European Union's $348 million, with a 40 percent delivery rate.

    Gulf states have become increasingly important donors in recent years, providing hundreds of millions of dollars to emergencies across the globe. Last year, Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million to Iraq, while it recently announced it would fill the entirety of a $274 million appeal for Yemen.

    Yet they have also been known to work outside the traditional humanitarian system, while there have been complaints of late payments (although Kuwait has been among the fastest states to turn pledges for Syria into cheques in the UN's name).

     

     

     

    IRIN asked Saudi Arabian, Qatari and Kuwaiti representatives for comment, but had not received responses by the time of publication. 

    Still blockaded

    Although the donation shortfall is significant, the World Bank argues that the major obstacle to reconstruction is “not financing, but the limitations on imports of construction materials into Gaza.”

    Israel insists crippling restrictions are necessary for its security – it contends that in the past Hamas repurposed construction materials to build underground tunnels that it uses to store weaponry and attack Israeli citizens.

    Following a ceasefire agreement, a mechanism was set up to track the flow of goods for reconstruction in Gaza. But the territory’s economy remains largely closed off from the West Bank, Israel and Egypt – a factor that has hampered economic growth. Residents require permits to leave the territory, and these are only granted in limited circumstances. 

    The recent conflict further devastated the territory’s economy. The World Bank estimates Gaza’s GDP will be $530 million less in 2015 than it would have been without the war.

    Since the fighting, unemployment has jumped 11 percent to 44 percent, “probably the highest in the world,” the Bank said. Sixty percent of young people are out of a job, and 80 percent of the strip’s 1.8 million residents receive some sort of aid.

    Steen Lau Jorgensen, the World Bank’s Country Director for the West Bank and Gaza, called the outlook for Gaza “very troubling”. 

    “The ongoing blockade and the 2014 war have taken a toll on Gaza’s economy and people’s livelihoods,” he said in a statement, commenting on the near disappearance of exports and a 60 percent shrink in manufacturing. “The economy cannot survive without being connected to the outside world.”

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    Which countries are failing Gaza?
  • Why are Ethiopian Israelis protesting?

    For the last few days, Ethiopian-Jews in Israel and their supporters have been protesting against police brutality and racism. The protests were sparked by a video of Israeli police officers assaulting a uniformed Ethiopian-Israeli soldier.

    A Tel Aviv rally turned violent on Sunday night, with police firing stun grenades and water cannons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet with Ethiopian community leaders Monday, and another rally is expected outside his Jerusalem residence.

    But who are the Ethiopian Israelis and why are they so angry? 

     

    Click here for IRIN’s interactive guide.

     

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    Why are Ethiopian Israelis protesting?
  • Prison or poverty: Impossible choice for Israel deportees

    For Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers facing deportation from Israel’s Holot detention centre, the future is bleak. Those who have gone before describe a hand-to-mouth existence in Uganda or no freedom of movement in Rwanda.

    “There was no difference with the life in Israel,” Abush Mekonen, one of eight Eritrean asylum-seekers deported to Rwanda in July 2014, told IRIN. Mekonen said they had been promised jobs in Rwanda but instead were confined to a hotel. “We were not allowed to move or go out.”

    Israel has been encouraging asylum-seekers to leave the country for the past year by offering them one-off grants of $3,500 and one-way tickets home or to “safe” third countries in Africa. 

    At the end of March, Interior Minister Gilad Erdan gave asylum-seekers 30 days to return to their own countries or accept “voluntary” deportation. Refusal to do either will result in a hearing followed by possible indefinite detention in a prison for irregular migrants called Sa'aronim.

    In the past year, about 7,000 have opted to return home, while 1,500 accepted so-called voluntary deportation to third countries, according to immigration figures. Although the government has not named the third countries being used for deportations, testimonies gathered from deportees suggest they are Uganda and Rwanda.

    “Life was hard in Israel. We were confined in the detention centre; we couldn’t move. Our only work was to eat and sleep,” said Mekonen, recalling his decision to go to Rwanda.

    Returning to Eritrea was not on option, he added. “If I agreed to go back home, I would be heading straight away to prison. We had no choice; we opted to be deported to Rwanda.”

    Miki Bereket, another Eritrean asylum-seeker deported last July, said the group was originally offered two options before being told it had to be Rwanda.

    “When we reached there, we realized we were not wanted in Rwanda either,” he told IRIN.
    Rwandan President Paul Kagame is reported to have confirmed that a deal with Israel to accept some of its unwanted asylum-seekers is imminent.

    Uganda’s Commissioner for Refugees David Apollo Kazungu told IRIN his government had made no such agreement with Israel. “Treat it as rumours,” he said. “You can ask the Israelis to show you any agreement we have with them.”

    However, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers spoke with asylum-seekers already sent to both Rwanda and Uganda. Reut Michaeli, the hotline’s executive director, said their testimonies showed neither Uganda nor Rwanda should be considered “safe” countries.

    “Documents and money are taken from the asylum seekers when they arrive from Israel and they are not granted any legal status or given formal protection from deportation,” he told IRIN. "They are forced to keep searching for refuge in other places and are exposed to abuse and exploitation.”

    He described the transfer of asylum-seekers to other countries without agreements and commitments to ensure they will be protected as “a blatant violation of international law.”

    After two weeks in Rwanda, immigration officials gave the Eritreans temporary travel documents allowing them to move on. Some headed for Sudan and Libya, in the hope of reaching Europe, but Mekonen and Bereket decided to try their luck in Uganda, where they applied for asylum.

    “Uganda is a free country,” said Bereket, speaking to IRIN in the capital, Kampala. “But it’s hard to cope with life and survive in Uganda without money.”

    The $3,500 grants they received from the Israeli authorities are all spent and their status as asylum seekers prevents them from working. 

    “We have to survive on one meal a day. Some days, we don’t have anything to eat,” said Bereket. “I have managed to get a girlfriend as part of the survival strategy. At least I know I will get some food to eat.

    “We hope we shall be granted full refugee status soon. We are asking the Ugandan government for protection and according us full refugee status to enable us to get some work to earn a living.”

    Despite the struggle to survive in Uganda, Mekonen said life was “fairer” than in Israel or Rwanda.

    “At least I am free,” he told IRIN.

    "I will choose indefinite prison" 

    For other Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers still in Israel even the prospect of indefinite detention is preferable to the uncertainty of deportation to a third country. Aman Beyene, 38, said his friend regretted having accepted voluntary removal to Uganda in May 2014. 

    According to Beyene, when his friend arrived in Uganda, police were waiting for him at the airport. After four hours of questioning, all of his paperwork was taken from him.

    "He went to a UNHCR office and told them about his situation and was told they couldn't accept him because he'd voluntarily left Israel. He's in hiding now, with no work, no way to feed himself and if he's found he will be arrested."

    Beyene fears a similar fate. He left Eritrea in 2008 after being imprisoned and tortured for rejecting military service. His request for asylum in Israel was turned down last year and he has been at Holot, an “open” facility in Israel’s southern Negev desert, ever since. 

    "I will go anywhere that Israel can guarantee I will be protected, but until then I will choose indefinite prison over Rwanda or Uganda," Beyene told IRIN.

    Holot was built after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that incarcerating migrants at Sa'aronim without trial for up to three years was unlawful. The court ordered that migrants and asylum seekers detained in Sa'aronim and Ktziot prisons should be released within 90 days. The government responded by passing a law that reduced the period of detention to one year but allowed for indefinite detention in an “open” detention facility. 

    The continued used of indefinite detention caused Israel’s High Court to order Holot be shut down last September. The government then amended the law, limiting detention at Holot to 20 months. Michaeli of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers said the new policy of “voluntary” deportation appeared to be a way of circumventing the 20-month limit.

    The policy will initially be applied to 2,000 asylum seekers detained in Holot. Seventeen of the detainees have already been told they have a month to accept deportation or be transferred to Sa’aronim.

    An estimated 43,000 Eritreans and Sudanese nationals currently live in Israel. According to international refugee law, they cannot be deported to their home countries due to the likelihood they would be subjected to persecution.

    Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention but has one of the lowest refugee recognition rates in the world - it has granted refugee status to only 200 asylum seekers in the last 60 years.

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    Impossible choice for Israel deportees

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