UNRWA commissioner general Pierre Krähenbühl has begun a two-day visit to Ireland to exchange views with senior figures on the situation in the Middle East in general, and conditions faced by Palestinians in particular.
He will meet President Michael D Higgins, as well as Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and other members of the Oireachtas, and will fulfil several speaking engagements.
He told The Irish Times he views his mission as "positive because Ireland has been such a committed supporter" of UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees – which looks after the needs and wellbeing of five million Palestinian refugees residing in urban "camps" across the Levant.
During his travels Krähenbühl seeks to "renew national connections" with the 70-year-old Palestinian refugee issue at a time when there are other crises in the world. Interest in Palestinians revived in 2015 when 40-50,000 refugees from Syria sought asylum in Europe along with tens of thousands of Syrians.
He gives examples of operational difficulties UNRWA faces in the fragmented West Bank and in Gaza under Israeli blockade. In the former, UNRWA has to deal with “Israeli restrictions on the transfer of goods and people [from one place to another] and two Israeli military incursions into camps daily. The restive population of the Aida camp near Bethlehem is the most exposed population on the planet to extensive use of tear gas.”
In Gaza, UNRWA is still bringing materials for reconstruction following Israel’s 2014 war on the strip where “the most important challenge is dealing with the psycho-social impact [of warfare] on the people..on their souls. There is 65 per cent youth unemployment, the highest in the world.”
Ninety per cent of Gaza’s 270,000 students have “never left the strip and lack a personal horizon”, states Krähenbühl.
UNRWA struggles to secure funding for essential programmes. Its total expenditures amount to $1.2 billion (€1.01 billion), $750 million for core activities such as education, health care and relief; emergency appeals for $400 million each for the occupied Palestinian territories and Syria normally raise only 30-50 per cent of the amount needed.
While Ireland’s total contribution has been €4.6 million for the past two years and is expected to remain at this level for 2018, he says the State “persevered through difficult [economic] times”.
Asked if the Trump administration has kept up previous commitments, Krähenbühl states, "We have had good first year." The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, and envoy Jason Greenblatt visited UNRWA and returned to Washington "impressed", he says.
The US, UNRWA's largest donor, has contributed $152 million for 2017. The European Union, with $113.6 million, is the second largest donor.
The most pressing issue for UNRWA is to secure contributions by the end of next month to cover the $61 million deficit, a figure which equals the agency’s December budget. If his quest fails, UNRWA has two options: to carry the deficit forward or to suspend services.
He argues it must “maintain continuity of services or risk instability”. Education alone has a $30 million monthly budget. The agency “cannot provide schooling for 500,000 students one year and 400,000 the next year. In 2015 we nearly had to postpone the school year,” risking protests. Although UNRWA raised the money then, he says, “nothing is guaranteed”.
Palestinians cling to education because it provides a “personal horizon” for the young at a time when there is “no political horizon” for the Palestinian people. Due to the conflicts in Gaza and Syria it is necessary to recreate a “political horizon”, he says. Failure to do so can only increase Palestinian suffering and increase instability.
“The Palestinian-Israeli relationship is not static,” he states. The situation is constantly shifting. “If the international community does not invest in a political solution, the Palestinian problem cannot be solved.”
The two-state solution is the only option on the table, he adds. "There is no plan B," he states. "Ireland knows and understands how to bring about change" through negotiations. The EU is in a good position to promote a political pro- cess as it has member states close to Israel and others backing the Palestinians.
However, when he visits European capitals, “I hear confirmation of the two-state solution but there is no decisive action. I feel more can be done to bring about a solution.”
UNRWA was created by a UN resolution in December 1949 and became operational in May 1950 to aid the 750,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes by Israel’s 1948 war of establishment. Refugee numbers swelled in 1967 when Israel conquered the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
UNRWA provides housing, food, cash aid for needy cases, education, and health care for refugees living in 59 camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories. UNRWA also has a microfinance programme to give refugees the means to open businesses and become self-supporting. It is the largest UN agency with more than 30,000 staff, 90 per cent of whom are Palestinian.