Interview: Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman, on Palestinian refugees

Monday, June 20 2011| Roee Ruttenberg | +972 Magazine

There is no doubt in my mind that you can have a just and durable peace unless 4.8 million refugees are brought out of their 63-year exile, statelessness and dispossession.
– Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman, 20 June 2011

Roee Ruttenberg: Can you tell us a little bit about the current state of the Palestinian refugees, specifically vis-à-vis the what they are seeing around the region in the so-called “Arab Spring?”

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: The situation is quite different in a number of states or territories. In Syria, for example, there’s great upheaval, though by and large UNRWA refugees have managed to keep their heads below the unrest. But one of is of course very nervous about the security situation in the camps. In Jordan, too, there’s been unrest. But by and large it’s not really affected the refugees. In Lebanon, they have a particular problem which is access to the labor markets. So you saw how despite the change in legislation, the refugees don’t have the access to jobs that they should, so they basically empty the bins and do jobs that the lowest of the lows do. Even qualified doctors and nurses – they can work for UNRWA but they can’t work in the public or private sector in Lebanon itself. In Gaza, of course, the blockade has now gone into its fifth year. It’s a collective punishment – 1.5 million people, a million of whom are refugees, 54% of whom are children – under blockade are being collectively punished. And in the West Bank we are seeing the occupation continuing to erode the long-term economy of the refugees. So things are very different depending on where the refugees are in the region.

Palestinian refugees flee to Lebanon, late 1948 (Photo: Gnuckx, CC license)

Palestinian refugees flee to Lebanon, late 1948 (Photo: Gnuckx, CC license)

Roee Ruttenberg: What about the Palestinian territories. You have Palestinian refugees and non-refugees. What is the distinction?

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: (UNRWA) has just come out with an economic report – survey of the jobs market – which shows that in the West Bank there are about 750,000 refugees, and long-term there are real structural problems. They are slipping further and further into poverty, into food insecurity, and that’s very largely because of the occupation in the West Banks, hundreds of Israeli checkpoints which cut them off from their markets, from their lands, from their traditional water sources. In Gaza, it’s very much about the blockade. We now have a situation where, comparing now with pre-blockade levels, we are getting in about 40% of what we need. UNRWA is trying to build a hundred schools in Gaza, and yet a relatively small fraction of those projects have been approved (by the Israelis). So we are waiting for the Israeli government to realize that the only people who are really benefitting in Gaza are Hamas. That’s not in Israel’s interest. What we want to see is a fully lifting of the blockade in accordance to the “Agreement on Movement and Access” which foresees both exports coming out of Gaza and raw materials coming into Gaza, which people can make some of, which creates jobs.

Roee Ruttenberg: The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that he will declare an independent Palestinian state via the UN and will ask the UN for its support and recognition when the General Assembly meets in September. What are the implications of that for Palestinian refugees, specifically in the Palestinian territories?

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: We hope that the implications will be enormous. We hope that as the Palestinians move, apparently, towards a declaration of statehood, they’ll realize that the refugees have to have some place in the political order. And I think the Arab Spring has shown that people are crying out for social and political inclusion, for an end to injustice. You can’t leave the Palestine refugees behind. So I hope that the declaration of statehood will bring forward some political bravery, some commitment and some courage from the decision-makers, from the statesmen of this world. Because there is no doubt in my mind that you can have a just and durable peace unless 4.8 million refugees are brought out of their 63-year exile, statelessness and dispossession.

10. Shuafat Refugee Camp Checkpoint. 13:14PM

Roee Ruttenberg: There are critics who say the UN treats the Palestinians with some favoritism, that the Palestinians refugees have their own UN agency – your agency, UNRWA – dedicated specifically to their cause, something no other group has. And just this week, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the international community treats the Palestinians like “spoiled children.” How do you respond to such criticisms?

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman: It’s very vindictive and its political wishful-thinking because if UNRWA went away and UNHCR took over the refugees, their inalienable rights would not disappear. So the right of return, which is enshrined in the “Universal Declaration (of Human Rights)” wouldn’t suddenly go away because UNRWA went away. No.

All internationally-accepted paradigms for solving this conflict say that the future plight of the Palestine refugees has to be resolved in a just and durable solution. Only then will UNRWA start talking about handing over its services and disappearing. That’s how the world has posited the end of the refugees problem, and that’s how the General Assembly sees it. If Israel or anyone else sees differently, they’ll have to go to the General Assembly and get that changed, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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