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Interview with Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner General of the UN Agency for Palestine refugees

Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner General of the United Nations Agency for Palestine refugees. Emmanuel Dunseath/IRIN
The decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the heart of 21st century world affairs, with numerous nations, international organisations and NGOs involved on both sides.

The United Nations has long played a role in the conflict, on both political and humanitarian levels. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established for the specific purpose of providing assistance to the Palestinian refugees the war created.

Today, UNRWA is the main provider of basic services - education, health, relief and social services - to more than 4.3 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, predominantly in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

In the absence of a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate, most recently extending it until 30 June 2008.

Karen Koning AbuZayd, a US national, was appointed Commissioner General of UNRWA on 28 June 2005, having been deputy commissioner since 2000 and having previously worked 19 years for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

see video clip of interview

Q: Do you see the recent kidnap attempt and shooting at John Ging, director of UNRWA’s field office in Gaza, as a turning point in the way the agency will conduct its operations in the occupied Palestinian territories?

A: No, I hope not because our services are very much needed in the oPt and we do want to carry on with our work. We do have to evaluate how much we do with our international staff, how we can continue. We’re in discussion with the [oPt] government, which is helping us quite a lot, and so we have to see how that plays out and what they do about it.

Number of Palestine refugees under the care of UNRWA as of 31 March 2006. Source UNRWA.

Field of operations

Official camps

Registered families in camps

Registered refugees in camps

Registered refugees
















West Bank





Gaza Strip





Agency total





Do remember that we have in Gaza alone about 9,000 local staff, Palestine refugees themselves, who will of course keep our basic services going – health, education and social services. But to do extra things, to have the international staff there, we have to be sure that we’re going to be safe and secure.

What is your general assessment of the humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza? Is it worse than ever before?

It is worse than ever. Our emergency appeal this year for 2007 is US $246 million – that’s just the UNRWA part of the CAP. This is higher than it was at any time during the intifada [Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation], which means that the needs are much greater [now] than they were during the intifada. And that’s mainly because of the boycott of the Palestinian Authority over the past year.

So we’re hoping now, with the National Unity Government having come into being [sworn in on 17 March], that there will be a change on the part of the international community – at least some of it – to lighten this boycott and to begin to deal with this government, and to give people their salaries back. Because there are all those people who have been working for nothing for a year. So we’re hoping there’ll be a change.

But the EU and US said they do not accept the new Palestinian unity government as it is. It doesn’t seem as if there will be any change with that respect.

What we have understood is that they are prepared to deal with some members of the government. They’re not boycotting the whole government and so maybe some things can be worked out. And I know that the EU is trying very hard to bring in more money, as they did last year, more money than in the past.

But of course that’s not the same as getting the economy actually working again, opening up the border points, getting things working – the economy as well as the humanitarian situation.

Who is a Palestine refugee?

Photo: Tom Spender/IRIN

  • Under UNRWA's operational definition, Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.
  • UNRWA's services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance.
  • UNRWA's definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948.
  • The number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than 4.3 million in 2005, and continues to rise due to natural population growth.
What are some of the logistical difficulties UNRWA faces in providing humanitarian relief in the occupied Palestinian territories with regard to border crossings and checkpoints? Can you elaborate?

Yes, well this is quite severe, particularly in Gaza where the whole of the Gaza Strip is closed off and we’re dependent on one commercial crossing [Karni Crossing], which is open sometimes and open for some hours sometimes.

The Rafah Crossing for people, of course, is very rarely opened and the crossing for other people – businessmen and internationals - through Erez is difficult.

On the West Bank side, as you may have heard many times, there are at least 530 checkpoints, roadblocks, the wall [Israeli separation barrier] continues to expand, the settlements continue to grow and it’s extremely difficult to go even from one village to another in the West Bank.

So we operate under great handicap which makes us very much less efficient and costs us a lot more money than we’d like to spend on these things.

What would you say is the most critical humanitarian need of the Palestinians in the occupied territories?

I would say being able to get the economy back on track, being able to let people work and get their salaries and being able to move goods so the businesses can start again.

Right now, the World Food Programme and ourselves feed the refugees and non-refugees, many humanitarian organisations brought in more money last year to give relief assistance but the people are very keen to work and to take of themselves and that’s what we’d like to see.

Is UNRWA getting the funds it needs to achieve its objectives?

No, we get the money – our donors are very generous, very good at giving us the money for the basic services – education and relief for the most vulnerable. But UNRWA’s been around for 58 years now and a lot of the refugees have been around for the same amount of time with their same houses or same schools.

We have a serious problem with the decline in our standards of our schools, our health clinics. Our schools are double-shifted, our doctors see 100 patients a day so we really need to have money to build up the infrastructure and we need more money every year because there are more refugees every year.

Is the mass exodus of Iraqis to neighbouring countries, particularly Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, having an impact on the Palestinian refugees already in those countries and their access to your services?

No, not really. They are the ones who have access to our services and also of the host governments. The Syrians and the Jordanians are extremely generous to the refugees. Many of them are citizens and are treated as citizens.

In Lebanon, we have a new approach by the government to let us improve the conditions in the camps and let refugees work in more occupations. So I would say that they’re not particularly affected except by the rising prices in the countries where these Iraqi refugees are going to where things are getting more difficult all round.

Photo: UNRWA
A map of UNRWA's area of operations as of March 2005. Source: UNRWA
What is the perception of the United Nations in the occupied Palestinian territories, with regard to the perhaps blurred line between the UN’s political and humanitarian arms?

I think that UNRWA has always been very special among the Palestinians and known as being part of them because we have all over the region 27,000 staff who are Palestine refugees. Of course, because they know that we are there to help them and so on, we are appreciated by the community and that certainly helps the UN generally.

Even throughout this intifada there have been so many UN agencies that have come in that people understand very well the difference between the humanitarian and the political and they will blame the nations that make the political decisions but they don’t so much blame the UN. I would say that we are more appreciated in the oPt than in many other parts of the world, in fact.

What is your vision of how the decades-old Palestine refugee dilemma can be resolved?

This is a political issue. It’s not a humanitarian issue. The refugees are one of the final status issues – as we call them – that will be solved when there is a peace process that finishes and creates a Palestinian state.

At that time, UNRWA is keen to implement whatever the political actors decide. We will be there to work on whatever choices the individual refugees make. It’s very much a principle of refugee business that the individual refugee must make the choice about his future and we would want that to happen before we acted.


read more on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza
read more on Palestinians in Jordan
read more on Palestinians in Lebanon
read more on Palestinians in Syria
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