The United Nations Refugees and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been responsible for providing assistance, protection and advocacy for some five million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territories pending a solution to their plight that began with the creation of Israel in 1948. UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Filippo Grandi, has been involved with the agency since 2005 and was appointed its head exactly three years ago. While in Cairo this week for talks with top government officials and Arab League Chief Nabil Al-Arabi, Grandi appeared optimistic that the new government in Egypt, headed by a president from the Muslim Brotherhood group, might augur positive changes in a long stagnant Middle East peace process. However, he described the situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria as “very sad”, and called on the Arab world “not to forget the Palestinians”. The following are extracts from an interview with Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi.
How has the recent wave of Arab revolts, known as the Arab Spring, affected UNRWA and Palestinian refugees in general?
I sometimes say the way the Arab Spring has affected Palestinians is not affecting them at all. They are the only element of the Arab region for whom the situation hasn’t really changed in respect to their conflict with the Israelis. The process to resolve the conflict has been very stagnant for a long time. I sometimes feel that Palestinian refugees, in particular, are the most frustrated among frustrated Palestinians. They feel there is a big contrast between the dynamic situation in other parts of the Arab region and the stagnation that exists in Palestine.
Some observers argue that the Palestinian situation after the Arab Spring has become worse, because their cause has been ignored. Each Arab country is busy with its own affairs and nobody is helping the Palestinians.
Yes. I think that Syria, for example, has badly affected the Palestinians because there are about 500,000 Palestinians who live in Syria. Meanwhile, attention is directed, and rightly so, to the Syrian conflict and trying to resolve it. All such developments distract attention from the core conflict of the whole region, which is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We at UNRWA deal with one aspect of the conflict, the refugees, and of course we see this first hand.
How is the situation in Gaza in particular?
In Gaza, the most important development under the Arab Spring heading has been Egypt. Here, allow me a little bit of optimism. I think that the role Egypt has played in the stoppage — and that’s how I call it, stoppage — of the vicious eight days of conflict in Gaza in November shows that Egypt can play a very important role in this region as peacemaker and as broker. I can also say we now have a peacemaker who can be fair to the Palestinians. Allow me to say, and I think in my eighth year in the job I can say this, many of the efforts for peace that have been made have not been fair to the Palestinians, or equitable. I think Egypt can play that role in a good way. It has of course a strategic interest, and it is interested in peace. But Egypt’s public opinion, which has authority, wants the government to support the Palestinians. So I can see here some advantages, and some possibilities. It will take time because Egypt is so occupied with its own problems, such as the economy, the constitution and other political developments. But it is one element to look at in the future that could bring new energy to solutions for the plight of the Palestinians. Perhaps I’m too optimistic.
How did the presence of a new Islamist government in Egypt help improve the situation in Gaza?
I go back to the most acute crisis of late last year, in November. The bombing was relentless in Gaza, and of course Hamas responded with rockets. We were all extremely worried that the Israeli army would enter the Gaza Strip like it did in 2009, which caused a lot of destruction and killing. Many players got involved in trying to stop the war in November. But it was only when Egypt played a central role that the situation changed. I think this is what we would like to see in many aspects of the Palestinian crisis, including reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Here, too, Egypt is also playing a role. I have been in Cairo for a few days and I met government and Arab League officials and they updated me on their efforts on that front. We are not a political organisation, but we are interested in reconciliation because we think it is important that the Palestinian leadership is united. So the Arab Spring, or more particularly the changes in Egypt, have not yet brought a resolution, but they have opened up some possibilities that are important from the political point of view, and we hope that they materialise.
But has the humanitarian situation improved in Gaza after a new Islamist government in Egypt took office, considering the continuation of the Israeli blockade that has been ongoing for over six years?
There have been very small improvements since 2010 when Israel decided to ease the blockade. But it has been very marginal. We were worried last November, during the brief war, that everything would go back to square one, a complete blockade. Yet let me remind you that the war ended with a ceasefire that included a commitment to pursue certain things: extension of the fishing zone, elimination of the buffer zone that doesn’t allow Palestinians to work and cultivate land near the border with Israel, and re-opening of some closed crossing points. My impression from meetings I had here with the Foreign Ministry and the intelligence service is that talks on these issues are going on. This is better than non-dialogue, and Egypt is actively facilitating and sponsoring these talks. This is very important.
If these improvements could happen, it would not solve the problem, but would marginally improve the situation for the Palestinians. But let me stress one point, and we have to be principled on this: the only measure that can solve the situation and improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza is lifting the blockade. The blockade is illegal, from the point of view of international law, and frankly speaking it has not achieved any of its stated goals, particularly in terms of security. There have already been two wars since the blockade has been place. I hope that the existing ceasefire discussions will also be an opportunity for the parties to realise that dialogue, and eventually lifting the blockade, is what will be conducive to stability.
Has Israel been allowing more goods to get into Gaza over the past seven months since Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi took office?
The flow of goods at the moment is pretty much the same as before this last war. UNRWA, which is the biggest builder in Gaza, and other organisations, use one crossing, Karem Abu Salem, which is very limited in capacity, and we have to go through a fairly cumbersome procedure to obtain the permits to do our projects. Nevertheless, we do it. The Israelis have increased the amount of construction material allowed to go into Gaza after the war by 20 trucks. That’s not too much, but it is better than nothing. Egypt has also allowed materials under the Qatari construction project to go through the Rafah crossing point. But they maintained that this will be limited to this project, and that Rafah will remain for passengers only, and not for commercial goods.
We need more crossing points to be opened like before, and particularly the Sofa crossing point, north of Karem Abu Salem, for construction material as an immediate measure. Equally important is for Israel to resume giving permission to Palestinians to export, not to distant lands because they are not competitive for that, but to their natural markets in the West Bank and Israel. This way, some of the poverty could be reduced, and prices come down, and eventually a lot of the humanitarian assistance could be reduced. We do that now because there is no economy that exists in Gaza. But I think we are far from that now; it will take time. We have elections in Israel and everything is suspended politically until we know what government will take office. Poverty remains very high and there are things that we should not continue to be doing as UNRWA, like giving away food and cash. We should be doing our core work: education, health and reconstruction. Humanitarian work, frankly, is a waste of resources, except that it is badly needed for poor Palestinian families.
If we move to Syria, how is the war there affecting Palestinian refugees?
There are about 520,000 Palestinians in Syria, a very large number. For decades, they were well treated in Syria, by the people and the government. When the conflict started in 2011, for quite some time we did not see any Palestinian involvement in the war, and they were not very affected. But unfortunately, starting early summer 2012, we saw the conflict entering the areas of the Palestinians. Of course, there are groups among the Palestinians that support the Al-Assad government; not big, but they exist. And there are also a few elements that joined the opposition. But that was enough to drag the conflict to those areas. I was in Syria myself a month ago and I went to Yarmouk, which is a small town on the outskirts of Damascus. There was shelling and bombing and some fighting inside. By mid-December, most of the population left Yarmouk. I believe the most acute fighting has now been suspended after they negotiated a truce. But the people have not come back, except a few, and we have not been able to resume our services as UNRWA.
Right now, we are no longer providing education and health, but unfortunately we are providing food and cash. One effect of the conflict is increasing poverty among Palestinians. They were not rich people; more like lower-middle class, and a lot of them depended on employment by small or family enterprises. A lot of these went out of business, and many Palestinians lost their jobs. We need to help those people live, and cash is the best way to handle this situation. Initially we thought a few Palestinians needed help. But right now, almost 400,000 out of the 500,000 Palestinians who live in Syria need help, food, cash, medical assistance and winter clothes.
Did you discuss the situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria with Arab League Chief Nabil Al-Arabi?
I had a very good discussion on this issue with Dr Al-Arabi on Monday, 14 January, because we are approaching a conference at the end of the month that will be hosted by the emir of Kuwait and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on helping Syria. This is a humanitarian conference, not a political one. I told Dr Al-Arabi, and he agreed 100 per cent, that we should not forget the Palestinians. The saddest thing is that Palestinians were very well treated in Syria. But once the situation deteriorated, you can see that they are now more exposed than other citizens. I spoke to a lot of refugees when I was there, and they now feel that because they are Palestinians, it is more difficult for them to go to hospitals, because the hospitals are full, stretched and short of supplies, and the priority is for Syrian citizens. That’s a natural, but sad fact.
But are Palestinians involved in the sectarian conflict in Syria?
At this point, they are not. But if the situation deteriorated further, we could see retribution against one group or the other. So far, the Palestinians’ military involvement has been minimal. But there is always a risk. The more the conflict goes on, the more the sectarian aspect will be dangerous, including for Palestinians. I must also mention that Hamas has been quite careful that the situation doesn’t affect the Palestinians in Syria. Ideologically, they might be close to the Syrian opposition, but pragmatically, they have avoided pouring fuel on the ongoing flames because their people will suffer more than they are suffering already.
Have many Palestinian refugees fled from Syria to Lebanon and Jordan?
Around 20,000 Palestinians have already moved to Lebanon because of the bad situation in Syria. Meanwhile, Jordan has stated publicly that Palestinians from Syria should not go to Jordan. They have already a large number of Palestinians and they don’t want more. Hardly 2000-3000 left to Jordan. We understand the occupation of Jordanians, and the fact that they already have refugees from Syria. But we appeal to them, for humanitarian purposes, to allow some cases in. Lebanon is not also the best place for Palestinians to be because the situation there has been difficult for years. But they are desperate, and they disperse into existing communities and camps and stay with their families and friends. We try to offer them help, particularly in the field of education.