UNRWA updates, 12 July 2014

Posted: July 12, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, UNRWA

Gaza updates for 12 July 2014 via Twitter from UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness:

The latest UN OCHA situation report for Gaza (13 July 2014) can be found here.


UNRWA updates, 11 July 2014

Posted: July 11, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Syria, UNRWA

UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness has been very active tweeting updates on the current crises in both Gaza and Syria. Here are a few of his tweets from today.

You can follow him here.

UNRWA: Gaza situation report, 9 July 2014

Posted: July 9, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Israel, UNRWA

UNRWA issued the following situation report at 08h00 on 9 July 2014:

UNRWA-logoGaza Situation Report

A daily update from UNRWA

24-hour update – 08.00hrs, 9 July 2014 | issue 01

Facts and Figures

  • 1.2 million refugees
  • 8 refugee camps
  • 12,000 staff
  • 245 schools for 225,000 students
  • 21 health centres
  • 12 food distribution centres for more than 830,000 refugees
  • Living under a tightened land and sea blockade since 2007
  • Shattered local economy

Due to the escalation in violence over the past 24 hours, UNRWA has declared an emergency in all five areas of the Gaza Strip and is closely monitoring the situation. The priority for the Agency continues to be its regular operations, however, urgent funding needs persist.


Following the escalation in violence between Gaza and Israel in November 2012, an understanding was reached between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt, which called for security for Israel to be met with improvements for Gaza. 2013 was subsequently the quietest year in a decade as regards violence between Israel and Gaza. That relative calm began to break down at the end of 2013, and any remnants have been shattered since the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank on 12 June and then the murder of a Palestinian teenager from Shu’fat on 2 July. The escalation of violence in Gaza, particularly over the past 48 hours, has been intense and the situation very much mirrors that of the first days of the November 2012 escalation.

During the past 24 hours alone, some 232 Israeli airstrikes and other fire have struck the Gaza Strip, while some 169 rockets and projectiles have been fired at Israel from Gaza. There are no indications that the violence is likely to recede in the coming days. Continuous targeting bombing of Gaza, including the killing of civilians by Israel, points to a more protracted crisis unfolding.

The streets of Gaza last night and today are virtually empty and almost all shops are closed. The population is extremely concerned at the possibility of even greater violence in the coming hours and days, particularly a ground incursion. People are limiting their movements as much as possible.

Yesterday, most government institutions were closed, except for medical facilities, as the former de facto employees carried out a one-day strike.

A solution to some form of payment to these 42,000 workers has not been found, and PA staff salaries have not be paid, as the banks have remained closed after gunfire and grenade attacks on some branches in Gaza City.

So far, only very limited displacement has taken place, with small numbers of Gazans seeking refuge in three UNRWA school compounds overnight, as this gave them a greater sense of security. No emergency shelters have yet been opened.

UNRWA response

  • UNRWA remains deeply concerned at the alarming escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip and Southern Israel over the past 24 hours.
  • UNRWA is closely monitoring the situation. International staff remain in Gaza and will continue to do so; more essential international staff returned to Gaza yesterday. A back office has been opened in the West Bank Field Office to support operations.
  • The priority for the Agency continues to be its regular operations, providing primary health care in 21 health clinics, carrying out food distribution to the 830,000 refugees dependent on UNRWA for this critical support, and conducting environmental health and other activities in the refugee camps.
  • All distribution centres are operational and 20 of 21 health centres remain open.

As UNRWA has always done in the past, it also stands ready to provide whatever emergency assistance it can, should the situation deteriorate even further.

Of note is that there has been a significant change in the security situation over the past 24 hours. Specifically, the use of long-range rockets, the targeting of civilian residences and the insurgence deeper into Israel.

On 8 July, Palestinian security forces sites were evacuated in expectation of Israeli airstrikes.

Summary of Major Incidents (rockets/airstrikes only)

Reportedly, 169 rockets were fired towards Israel, and 29 rockets were shot down by Iron Dome. Three mortar shells were fired towards Israel. IAF conducted 232 raids firing 362 missiles. Israeli navy fired 142 shells at targets. 37 houses were bombarded by IAF. IDF positioned at the border fired 46 tank shells.

Palestinian Ministry of Health reported that 24 Palestinians were killed and over 180 wounded.

UNRWA Casualties. No casualties with an UNRWA connection were reported.

UNRWA Installations. There was some minor collateral damage to UNRWA installations reported: a girls’ school in Khan Younis, a health clinic in northern Rafah, and a boys’ school in Deir El Balah, in the Middle Area.

Approximately 68 people approached three schools for shelter in the evening of 8 July – one in Gaza, one in Rafah and another in Khan Younis. UNRWA did not open the shelters but allowed the families to spend the night in the compounds, which provided a greater sense of security.

Funding Needs

Although operations for UNRWA continue in all five Areas, there is an urgent need for funding to cover the US$ 22 million Emergency Appeal shortfall already projected by the Agency. Currently, the most urgent funding needs include funding to continue the food-assistance programme and additional resources to procure additional non-food items (US$ 1 million) and fuel for critical installations (US$ 2.5 million).


  • Rafah crossing was closed.
  • Erez crossing was open for foreigners and humanitarian cases.
  • Kerem Shalom was open for only fuel and humanitarian supplies.

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight.

Today’s Ha’aretz has a must-read piece by Barak Ravid on the 2013-14 US/Israel/Palestine negotiations, including a summary of the draft framework document prepared by the US. It also confirms previous reporting that Washington worked on this far more closely with Israel than the Palestinians in developing the position paper.

Given the importance of the article, I’ve reproduced it below in full.

The secret fruits of the peace talks, a future point of departure?
Some think the still-secret framework document produced by nine months of talks might contain the basis for a future American peace plan.
By Barak Ravid| 00:30 05.07.14

July 30, 2013 was another hot and humid summer day in Washington. That morning, a pair of Israelis and a pair of Palestinians sat opposite each other on olive-green sofas in the air-conditioned comfort of the Oval Office in the White House. On one sofa were Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and attorney Isaac Molho, the prime minister’s envoy; on the other were the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and a top Fatah official, Mohammad Shtayyeh.

A day earlier, another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks on a final-status agreement had been launched in a modest ceremony and with little fanfare. It was one more attempt in a 20-year chain of dashed hopes, missed opportunities, unreached agreements and no end of frustration. Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. special envoy for the negotiations, Martin Indyk, were on hand, playing the role of the latest American mediators to engage in a countdown to the inevitable crash.

Sitting in the brown leather chairs perpendicular to the Israelis and the Palestinians were President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. They were searching for the right words that would imbue the negotiators with motivation and a sense of urgency, but at the same time would not generate unwarranted expectations about the chances for success. “Every journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step – what’s important is seriousness,” Obama said.

“Seriousness” was the keyword at that brief meeting. Kerry, Livni and Erekat uttered it several times. But one of the participants made a remark that was something of a Freudian slip. “This time it really will be serious,” he said, possibly sarcastically.

The cynicism that accompanied the talks, the lack of enthusiasm for yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and, at the end of the allotted nine months, the resounding collapse of the process – whose consequences the parties are now feeling – led to the notion that, once again, the talks had not been serious. It was alleged that it had all been for nothing, that not a thing had happened, that the parties had just played for time and the chance to hurl mutual recriminations.

But this conclusion may not have done justice to all nine months of talks. Especially to the three months from December 2013 until March 2014, in which Kerry and Indyk held intensive talks with Israel and the Palestinians on the framework document for the negotiations. The idea was to set forth for the sides the principles for a solution of the core issues: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, settlements and water.

Copies of that 10-page document now lie in safes at the State Department in Washington and in a few offices in Jerusalem. The number of people in Israel who have read the document in full can be counted on the fingers of one hand, maybe a hand and a half. All the American and Israeli sources who were interviewed for this article declined to show the document to Haaretz, because of its volatility and the apprehension that its publication would make both sides, but particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disavow the principles they had articulated in the negotiations.

Senior Israeli and American officials who were intimately involved in the talks say that even though the negotiations collapsed, the framework document remains relevant. The reason for this, according to all those involved, is that the document, though now in deep freeze, will be thawed out at some point before Obama leaves the White House and serve as a point of departure for future negotiations, or as the basis for an American peace plan that will be presented to the sides.

“The work on the document was not a waste of time,” says a senior Israeli official, adding, “I had very low expectations from the whole process, but I was favorably surprised by what happened at the end. It’s true that there is no agreement, but relative to the composition of the government coalition in Israel and the situation on the Palestinian side, we made quite a bit of progress.”

Recalculating the route

The goal that the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators talked about in that White House meeting a year ago was nothing if not ambitious: A comprehensive and full final-status agreement within nine months. Once back home, Livni, Molho, Erekat and Shtayyeh began to hold meetings. All told, they met 25 times between August and December 2013.

Some of the meetings were held in Jerusalem, others in Jericho. Indyk, then the U.S. envoy, took part in some of them, while in others the Israelis and Palestinians faced off without mediators. But the talks did not produce a breakthrough. Both sides persisted in presenting their basic positions. Each spoke to himself, and no one really engaged in the kind of give-and-take that underlies genuine negotiations. The principal achievement of those months lay in the food served at the meetings, especially the dinners at Erekat’s home in Jericho, prepared by his wife, Naima. A senior Israeli official who took part in the talks related that already after a few meetings, the two sides began to understand that they had to recalculate the route. In other words, to abandon the goal of achieving a comprehensive settlement in favor of reaching a framework agreement that would demarcate the sector boundaries of the two-state solution.

The final decision to this effect was made in mid-November, when a wave of massive construction in the settlements following the second release of Palestinian prisoners led to the resignation of the Palestinian negotiating team and the suspension of direct talks.

In addition to changing the goal, Kerry and the American team also decided on a change of style that would involve a shift to “proximity talks” – indirect negotiations in which they would shuttle between the sides and try to bridge the gaps in an effort to formulate a framework document. Their aim was to bring about a quantum leap that would hurtle the sides from empty talks and entrenched positions to true negotiations in which they would try to strike a deal.

The framework document was not meant to be an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but an American position paper, based on which the sides would be ready to resume the negotiations from a more advanced point. To help them politically, the Americans agreed to allow the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president to announce that they had reservations about certain clauses in the document. Netanyahu and Abbas would not detail their demurrers but made do with a statement that would be discussed in the negotiating room.

The Americans believed that the framework document would oblige the two leaders to make a series of tough decisions at a relatively early stage of the talks. Such decisions would completely change the atmosphere of the negotiations and the political reality on both sides, and induce the leaders to cross the Rubicon and move full-tilt toward an agreement.

In addition, the crisis that erupted at this point over the prisoner release and construction in the settlements showed Kerry that time was not on his side. Seeing the potential crisis of a third release of prisoners at the end of December, he wanted to move ahead as quickly as possible.

At the beginning of December, Kerry, who was already intensively and personally involved in the talks, ramped up his involvement even further. He and Indyk set in motion a round of marathon talks – though the major American effort was focused on talks with the Israeli side.

Senior Israeli and American officials related that this stage consisted of daily work. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of talks and discussions were held between the teams, often deep into the night. Tzipi Livni, who was at the forefront of these contacts, was indefatigable. If she found a door closed to her, she entered through a window. With great persistence she was able to get Netanyahu to budge on no few issues, in order to move toward the formulation of the framework paper.

Each and every issue was addressed: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, settlements, Jewish state. On every issue the Israelis presented their position, the Americans set forth a counter-position, and together they tried to work out formulations to close the gaps.

But along with the work of the teams, a large portion of the negotiations was conducted directly between Netanyahu and Kerry. During this period, the secretary of state visited Israel several times for talks with the sides, but the bulk of the negotiations was carried out by means of almost daily video conferences with Netanyahu. On one occasion, Kerry came on for a talk from Indonesia, another time from China. Sometimes the talk lasted two hours, sometimes five.

Both Kerry and Netanyahu are devotees of words. Kerry, a lawyer by training, wanted to formulate everything himself, and Netanyahu wanted to see every word. For hour upon hour they sat opposite the camera and the plasma screen, and worked on the clauses of the document. Members of the Israeli negotiating team who were in the room handed Netanyahu notes with their suggestions for wording of the text.

Senior Israeli and American officials involved in the talks on the framework document attest that during those months of negotiations, and particularly in the three months of work on the framework agreement, Netanyahu softened his positions slowly but consistently, and showed seriousness and a readiness to make progress.

From conversations with members of the Israeli negotiating team, the following picture arises of the positions put forward by Netanyahu in his talks with Kerry and which appeared in the final draft of the document:

1. Borders

Netanyahu agreed for the first time to accept the principle that the negotiations will take place on the basis of the 1967 lines together with a territorial swap. The implication: readiness to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the territory of the West Bank in any peace agreement. However, Netanyahu refused to elaborate on whether he would agree to a one-for-one swap, as the Palestinians and Americans called for. In addition, he made this conditional on the document’s including a reference to his demand for Israel to be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people and on his being able to announce that he had reservations about the document without detailing them.

Even though Netanyahu ultimately agreed to conduct negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines and a territorial exchange, he flatly refused to present a map or even to discuss the subject theoretically. In one of the meetings between the Israeli and Palestinian teams, Molho, the prime minister’s envoy, left the room for a few minutes. When he returned he found Erekat and Livni hunched over a map that had been unrolled on the table. Appalled, Molho demanded an explanation. Erekat chided him and said he was explaining something about a certain region on the map to Livni. Livni, for her part, seeing Molho’s worried look, tried to reassure him. “Treat it as science fiction,” she told him with a smile. But Molho, whom the White House dubbed “Dr. No” – after the villain in the first James Bond movie – was not amused. With abysmal seriousness he said to Erekat, “Just so you know that what is happening here does not represent the position of the prime minister.”

A minor anecdote, perhaps, but it reflects Netanyahu’s deep aversion to addressing the subject of borders. The prime minister displayed great cautiousness in this realm, even in discussions with the smallest forums of the Israeli negotiating team. A senior Israeli official who took part in all the consultations noted that throughout the nine months of the talks Netanyahu did not give the slightest hint about the scale of the territorial concessions he would be willing to make. “Not even with the most intimate team did he peruse maps,” the official said.

2. Security

The Americans accepted most of Netanyahu’s security points and integrated them into the document. The clause on this issue states that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized and that there will be an Israeli army presence along the Jordan River as part of a special security regime to be established in that area. At the same time, the Americans left it to the two sides to negotiate the duration of the Israeli military presence. Netanyahu, for his part, softened his opposition to the presence of international forces in the West Bank. He agreed to the presence of an international force as a supplementary and supportive means alongside the Israel Defense Forces.

3. Recognition of Jewish state

Here, too, Netanyahu showed greater flexibility in the course of the negotiations. A senior Israeli official noted that at one stage Netanyahu replaced the term “Jewish state” with the term “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The framework document declares that peace will prevail between “two nation-states.” Netanyahu also agreed to include two clarifications in the document in order to try to placate the Palestinians, who have strong objections regarding this issue. For the first time, it was emphasized that the equality of rights of the minorities in Israel will not be infringed in any peace agreement. The second, and more interesting, clarification stated that recognition of the existence of two nation-states will not be considered an attempt by one side to oblige the other to forgo its narrative or to adopt a different narrative.

4. Refugees

A senior Israeli official related that in the framework document, the Americans adopted in general terms the Israeli position that there will be no right of return of refugees to Israel. However, the Americans wanted to give the Palestinians an honorable way out on this issue, to enable them to swallow such a meaningful concession.

Two approaches were discernible in the Israeli negotiating team. Some of those involved put forward a rigid stance of principle that rejected any compromise. Others argued that in order to obtain Palestinian agreement, Israel must protect the core of its interests – meaning to remove the issue of the right of return from the agenda – but to show flexibility on other refugee-related issues.

Washington wanted to insert a clause according to which, in addition to the options of returning to the Palestinian state, remaining where they were or moving to a third country, refugees could also choose to return to Israel based on criteria that Israel would set at its discretion and sovereign decision. A senior Israeli official noted that Netanyahu objected strenuously to the American proposals and that Tzipi Livni was even more intransigent than he on this issue.

Nevertheless, in the end Israel agreed to show flexibility here as well, and to consider return of refugees on a case-by-case basis. Israel put forward an idea according to which a special mechanism would be established to which Palestinians could apply, and Israel would examine their requests on an individual or humanitarian basis and decide whether to accept them or not, according to its own sovereign judgment. “The subject of the options to be available to the Palestinians was not finalized, and the possibility of a return to Israel remained open until the end,” says a senior Israeli official.

5. Jerusalem

This issue produced the widest gulf between Israel and the United States in the discussion of the framework document. The Americans adopted the Palestinian stance on the issue and initially wanted to insert a clause stating that Jerusalem would be the capital of both states. Subsequently they agreed to soften the formulation slightly, but not fundamentally. Netanyahu refused to have the document mention in any way that there would be a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. A senior Israeli official noted that Netanyahu was agreeable to a formulation that would include a statement about a future aspiration in this regard, or a general sentence to the effect that it would not be possible to achieve a final agreement without resolving the Jerusalem issue. According to the senior Israeli official, Netanyahu recognized the fact that without a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem there would be no agreement, but political concerns made him shirk any statement on the subject at this stage of the negotiations. The Americans hoped that they would be able to persuade Netanyahu to make a dramatic concession on Jerusalem if Abbas agreed to make a concession on the question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. But that potential tradeoff was never put to the test.

6. Settlements

The question of the fate of the settlements in a final-status agreement was not dealt with in detail in the framework document. The paper left an opening for Israelis to remain in the Palestinian state, but this was not a central issue. Netanyahu dealt with this issue mainly outside the negotiating room, in the form of a trial balloon with the settlers.

Neglecting Mahmoud Abbas

There were no intensive discussions with the Palestinians of the sort that were held with the Israelis. One reason for this was technical: the difficulty of holding secure video talks with the Muqata – the Ramallah-based headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. But another reason was the Americans’ wrongheaded behavior in regard to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen).

Warning lights began to go on among the Israeli team at a quite early stage of the negotiations. It wasn’t clear to Netanyahu and his aides what exactly the Palestinians thought about each of the clauses in the draft framework document that were hammering out with the Americans. “At one point we discovered that throughout the entire period, the Americans didn’t actually talk to the Palestinians, only to us,” a senior Israeli official said.

A senior American official who took part in the talks admits that the bulk of the work on the document was done with the Israelis. He explained that this was due to the fact that because the Americans viewed themselves as being closer to the Palestinian approach on a large number of the issues, their major effort had to be invested in trying to get Netanyahu to soften his positions. Fearing that the Palestinians would lock themselves into a rejectionist posture, the Americans decided not to present any proposal to them until they felt their contacts with Israel had reached a sufficiently serious outcome.

However, the Americans’ comportment brought about exactly the result they had feared. On February 19, 2014, when Kerry met with Abbas in Paris and apprised him orally of the main points of the emerging framework document, the secretary of state was stunned at the reaction.

The Palestinian leader, who was unwell and in a foul mood when he arrived for the meeting, had the feeling that the Americans had pulled “a Dennis Ross” on him – referring to the veteran American diplomat who was known throughout all the years of the negotiations for his practice of first striking a deal with the Israelis and then selling it to the Palestinians as an American proposal. Abbas thought Kerry was presenting him with a done deal and trying to stuff it down his throat.

The Kerry-Abbas meeting in Paris was a total bust. Senior American and Palestinian officials maintain that Abbas has been unbudgeable since that day. He refused to hold talks on the framework document, insisting first on getting a promise that Israel would release all the prisoners it had undertaken to free at the start of the negotiations.

Throughout the whole succeeding month, the Americans tried to extract from Abbas a response or a comment on the framework document, but to no avail. Abbas viewed the document as part of a plot against him. Things came to a head on March 17, when Abbas met with President Obama at the Oval Office for more than two hours and declined to give Obama anything other than a vague promise that he would get back to him in a few days about the framework document. Which he never did.

Both Abbas and chief negotiator Erekat say rightly that the Americans never gave them a copy of the framework document, but only presented ideas orally. They could thus not peruse the paper thoroughly and formulate an opinion. At this time, drafts of the document were being exchanged between Washington and Jerusalem on a daily basis. The Palestinians’ response, when they grasped what was going on, was that they were being duped. So great was their suspiciousness and so intense their frustration with the Americans that they lost interest in the process completely.

“The Americans did not invest enough time in the Palestinians,” a senior Israeli official related. “They didn’t hold video talks with them or discussions into the night over every letter in the document. The result was a crisis of expectations. How many times did we say to them: What about Mahmoud Abbas? Did you talk to him? Does he agree to all these points? The Americans neglected Mahmoud Abbas throughout this period, and when Kerry came to him in Paris it was already too late.”

A senior official in the U.S. administration who took part in the talks acknowledges that the biggest mistake made by the Americans was in dealing with Abbas. “It’s true, we weren’t sensitive enough toward him and we didn’t understand how he felt,” this source says. “In retrospect, we should have behaved differently.” Some members of the Israeli negotiating team maintain that throughout the nine months of the talks Netanyahu wrestled genuinely with the issues. One day he got up on the left side, filled with a desire to move ahead, and the next day he would get up on the right side and retract. On the one hand, he understood intellectually the need to advance toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but emotionally he wanted to go in the opposite direction. One of the major problems that kept cropping up throughout the negotiations was that decision-making was, time and again, guided by party-political considerations. A senior Israeli official who was involved in the talks noted that Netanyahu measured almost every step he wanted to take in terms of its effect on the coalition and on the basis of his political support from the right wing.

Even when Netanyahu was ready to make concessions, such as on the 1967 lines, or to implement confidence-building measures, like imposing serious restraints on settlement construction, he declined to say so clearly and expressed himself in the opposite way. This behavior severely affected the Palestinians’ trust and made it impossible to persuade them that an effort should be made to move forward.

But the primary reason for the failure of the U.S. attempt to formulate a framework document lies in the sour relations between Netanyahu and Abbas and in the fact that no point of convergence was forged between their approaches. Both of them wanted a peace agreement, but strictly on their own terms. “There is no doubt that Netanyahu budged during the talks,” says a senior member of the Israeli negotiating team. “If you look at where he was at the start and where he got to at the end, you see that it’s not the same place. There were many issues on which he started out very extreme and then became more flexible along the way. The problem is that he budged in relation to himself. Was that enough? No.”

The Prime Minister’s Bureau responded: “Without going into details, were the U.S. framework to have been completed, it would have represented the Americans’ proposals. Besides, Israel could have had reservations about its details.”

In an article today in The Nation, Noam Chomsky is critical of the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions) campaign against Israeli occupation, arguing that it needs to be based on a more realistic appraisal of both current conditions and the differences between the Israeli and South African case (on which BDS is partially modelled).

He also argues that BDS’s insistence on the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel is harmful to its cause:

The opening call of the BDS movement, by a group of Palestinian intellectuals in 2005, demanded that Israel fully comply with international law by “(1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; (2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”

This call received considerable attention, and deservedly so. But if we’re concerned about the fate of the victims, BD and other tactics have to be carefully thought through and evaluated in terms of their likely consequences. The pursuit of (1) in the above list makes good sense: it has a clear objective and is readily understood by its target audience in the West, which is why the many initiatives guided by (1) have been quite successful—not only in “punishing” Israel, but also in stimulating other forms of opposition to the occupation and US support for it.

However, this is not the case for (3). While there is near-universal international support for (1), there is virtually no meaningful support for (3) beyond the BDS movement itself. Nor is (3) dictated by international law. The text of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 is conditional, and in any event it is a recommendation, without the legal force of the Security Council resolutions that Israel regularly violates. Insistence on (3) is a virtual guarantee of failure.

You’ll find the full article here.

Ilan Pappe on BBC Hardtalk

Posted: July 2, 2014 by Rex Brynen in 1948

Israeli “new historian” Ilan Pappe discusses the forced displacement of Palestinian refugees and other issues on the BBC’s HARDtalk (first broadcast 30 June 2014).

Zochrot has published a number of videos (some in original Arabic or Hebrew, some dubbed into English) from its September 2013 conference on “From Truth to Redress: Realizing the Return of Palestinian Refugees.” You’ll find one of these below—the rest can be found here.

(Above: panel on “State, Regime and Space: Return Where?”)

UNRWA has released a video highlighting the reasons for poverty among Palestinian refugees. It cites as the primary causes 1) high unemployment (due to labour restrictions in Lebanon, and the effects of israeli occupation in the West Bank); 2) Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and 3) the Syrian civil war.

Canada and UNRWA

Posted: June 19, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Syria, UNRWA


At a time when many Palestinian refugees are facing increasing growing humanitarian crisis—most severely in Syria, but also in Lebanon and Gaza too—Canada’s lack of support for UNRWA is increasingly problematic. In an excellent op ed in the Toronto Star yesterday, Humera Jabir outlines a powerful argument why the Harper government should renew Canadian financial support for the Agency’s efforts:


Canada must renew support for Palestinian refugees

If the Harper government wants to be taken seriously as a foreign policy leader, it cannot continue to ignore the Palestinian refugee crisis that is shaping Middle East politics.

18 June 2014

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the Middle East in January he signalled Canada’s interest in showing greater leadership in the region. But if the Harper government wants to be taken seriously as a foreign policy leader, it cannot continue to ignore the Palestinian refugee crisis that is shaping the region’s politics.

Today, numbering in the millions and spread across the Middle East, Palestinian refugees, who fled what is now Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and ensuing conflicts, are central to Middle East politics and the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The worsening humanitarian conditions they face, now exacerbated by the conflict in Syria, further endanger the region’s stability.

And yet Canada, once a lead donor to Palestinian refugees, has turned its back on the population — a decision at odds with Canada’s foreign policy ostensibly concerned with the region’s security.

In 2007, Canada gave $32.4 million to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency(UNRWA), the organization mandated by the international community since 1950 to work for Palestinian refugees. The money was to help fund health care and education programs, as well as emergency food and job assistance to refugees most in need. This dropped to $20.5 million in 2009 and $15 million in 2012. Canada gave nothing in 2013, and there is no sign it will donate this year.

This amounts to an abdication of the very leadership role Harper claimed to want for Canada.

The flow of Palestinian refugees across borders has long been a source of tension in a region of messy sectarian divides, limited resources and sporadic violence. Today, more than 60 per cent of Palestinian refugees in Syria are displaced. Thousands have fled to Lebanon and Jordan, neighbouring countries already hosting sizeable Palestinian refugee populations and reluctant to accept more. Palestinian refugees from Syria have been blocked at borders or forcibly returned to war-ravaged Syria.

Moreover, Palestinian refugees who escape to Lebanon join a community that is already marginalized, deprived of political and economic rights and trapped in refugee camps the International Crisis Group describes as “a time bomb.” Without increased international support for the great numbers of Palestinian refugees arriving in Lebanon today, existing conditions will only worsen.

The decision to withdraw support to Palestinian refugees is also at odds with Canada’s international aid objectives, food security in particular. The violence in Syria has spared none, but with fewer options and resources Palestinian refugees are especially vulnerable.

In February, alarming photos of Palestinian refugees facing starvation in Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus made headlines. After a seven-month siege by Syrian forces, thousands of Palestinian refugees crowded the camp’s streets to collect food aid. There were reports of some eating leaves and animal feed to survive, leading the UN to call Yarmouk a crisis “unprecedented in living memory.”

Canada has pledged to aid Syrian refugees through other international partners. But by not funding UNRWA it is decidedly ignoring the needs of the Palestinian refugee population in Syria and discriminating between Syrian and Palestinian victims who suffer the same violence and upheaval.

It was widely reported that Canada’s 2009 decision to defund UNRWA was due to allegations that donor funds were being redirected to terrorist groups. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) itself disproved this, with a report finding “minimal” risk of funds being redirected and UNRWA to be strong in its financial management. CIDA documents from 2010 showed that even the United States and Israel lobbied Canada to renew its funding to Palestinian refugees.

Britain, the European Union and the U.S., recognizing the critical importance of stabilizing the stateless Palestinian population, continue to donate to UNRWA and at higher levels to fill mounting shortfalls. Canada is the black sheep. Its decision to withdraw support was noticed internationally, and according to some commentators, a factor in why Canada lost its 2010 bid for a Security Council seat.

This year, UNRWA faces a shortfall of $22 million in emergency aid to Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, threatening the provision of food aid to a population where 57 per cent are food insecure by 2012 figures. Cuts in food distribution, layoffs and service reductions by UNRWA in Gaza have already led to waves of protests by refugees brought to their knees by the Israeli blockade imposed since 2007.

At a time of turmoil and greater desperation, ignoring the Palestinian refugee crisis is a fatal flaw in Canada’s Middle East policy. If Canada wants to be taken seriously as a leader, it must renew its support to the millions of Palestinian refugees whose plight will shape the region’s future.

Humera Jabir is a law student at McGill University in Montreal.

Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Dheisheh Refugee Camp

The Institute of National Security Studies has published a paper on the Palestinian refugee issue by Kobi Michael, the former deputy director and head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs. In it he argues that, with permanent status issues impossible to resolve at the present time, there should be an increased focus on improving the humanitarian conditions of Palestinian refugees within the Palestinian territories:

A paradigm shift in the Israeli-Palestinian discourse, which will enable a more developed foundation for advanced negotiations toward a future agreement, is now necessary. Specifically, the discourse must shift from national rights to human rights, focusing on the humanitarian rights of the Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian Authority. Israel, with the backing of the United States and the international community, should launch a process built on the humanitarian drive to bring relief to the refugee population in the PA and transfer this obligation to the Palestinian  government, which would receive aid from Israel and the international community for the effort. 

His argument for doing so (from the point-of-view of Israeli interests) lies predominately in weakening Palestinian refugee claims of a right of return,  as well as improving the socio-economic context for future negotiations:

There is no question that a “Jenin Estates” or “Bethlehem Heights” project would become an economic and social engine in the PA’s economic, social, and infrastructure development. With appropriate, careful, and close input from the international community, it would also aid in developing the political infrastructure of the future Palestinian state. No less importantly, a move of this type would signal to Israel that there is a Palestinian willingness to soften, if not rescind, the demand for the right of return, without the Palestinian leadership having to declare at this point in time that it is willing to consider recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Such willingness could surface in due course, once a project of this type advances significantly. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority will gain additional territories in a manner that signals Israeli willingness for real territorial compromise in due course and improves PA territorial contiguity, as well as economic and political recovery.

For those same reason, Palestinians are likely to find in his proposals a recipe for undermining the inherent rights of the refugees, and reject it as completely unacceptable.

However, what may be most interesting about the INSS paper is not its precise recommendations, but rather what it says about Israeli policy capacity and knowledge on this issue—or rather the lack thereof. Regardless of one’s political or ideological position, this weakness ought to be a concern for everyone, for it undermines the prospects for future successful negotiations. Concern about shortcomings in Israeli knowledge of the issue refugee have often been raised to me in the past by US, European, Jordanian, and Palestinian officials. Such concerns have also been raised by former Israeli officials, including those intimately involved in negotiations and negotiation preparations. It was a point on which the overwhelming majority of the Israeli participants agreed at the Chatham House workshop on Israeli perspectives on the Palestinian refugee issue. Indeed, one Israeli government official once told me that, when tasked with preparing a background paper on refugees, they had found so little knowledge and understanding within government ministries that they were forced to depend in part on a Google search to find important information.

In particular, a close reading of Michael’s paper reveals a umber of very basic weaknesses.

  • He seems to be assuming that all refugees live in refugee camps. In fact, most don’t: only 29% of Palestinian refugees live in camps. In the West Bank and Gaza the numbers are 24% and 42% respectively.
  • He assumes that refugees are receiving exclusively UNRWA services. In fact, outside the camps, the PA is already the primary service provider to refugees.
  • He seems to be assuming that Palestinian refugees are substantially worse off than other Palestinians. However, this is generally not true. Certainly, conditions in the camps tend to be worse off than those outside the camp (although most are not “squalid”). This is not because refugees are some how trapped there in a cycle of poverty, though, but rather because the camps act as a sort of reserve of low-income housing, with individuals and families (especially in the West Bank) often moving out as their conditions improve. As Jon Hanssen-Bauer and Laurie Blome Jacobsen have noted in the link above, “studies of [refugee] living conditions show that their livelihoods have stabilized after three generations and their basic living conditions resemble those of the host country populations.” Moreover, “These camp refugees have lower incomes and poorer health and education levels than those outside the camps. However, camp refugees have better access to basic health and education services due to UNRWA’s presence. The latter point directly leads to the conclusion that the camp populations do not face homogeneously poor living conditions, nor do they constitute the main poverty problem in the host countries.”

He repeated claims that the PA somehow “exploits [the refugees] misery,” but provides no evidence that they actually do this—because, of course, there is none. Indeed, the President of the PA is himself a refugee, while the most disadvantaged population in the West Bank is not refugees, but rather rural villages in the north and south.

The author’s understanding of the political dynamics of the refugee issue is equally weak. Any move to transfer responsibility for UNRWA service provision to the PA would undoubtedly be seen as an Israeli-international conspiracy to erode refugee claims (indeed, the very reason Michael proposes it). Refugees would also be worried about the erosion of service delivery standards. It would therefore spark a massive backlash in the West Bank and Gaza, to the point of imperiling the political stability of the PA. It certainly would be a massive political gift to Hamas.

Finally, the analysis shows a pretty stunning lack of appreciation for the magnitude of the task he is proposing:

New Palestinian cities can be established in Area C, which, with Israel’s agreement, would be transferred to PA responsibility, and Palestinian refugees can be rehabilitated there. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which over the years has evolved from a mechanism to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem to a participant in perpetuating their refugee status, would change its mission and become the international community’s representative for promoting this drive. UN aid and additional aid effort would be used for this purpose. Commercial and employment areas would be built next to the Palestinian cities, with the involvement of Israeli, Jordanian, and international developers, so that refugee rehabilitation would not be limited to housing solutions, but would include a comprehensive employment, education, and welfare package.

Rehousing and building new cities doesn’t come cheap: the cost of this would be in many of billions of dollars, at a time when there’s barely enough aid to keep the PA running, and certainly not enough aid money available to address the needs of refugees fleeing Syria. Indeed, virtually all serious studies of the refugee issue have recommended against wholesale “decamping” of refugee camps, even in the aftermath of a full peace agreement. Instead, while some new residential areas might be constructed, for the most part housing issues would be addressed through the dedensification and upgrading of existing refugee camps (which would, in the aftermath of an agreement, cease to be “refugee camps” and instead become normal urban areas—which, in many ways, is what they already are).

Finally, I think commentators who favour rehousing and the transfer of services to the PA overestimate the impact this would have on the strength of Palestinian political claims on the refugee issue. Certainly the polling evidence suggests that living in a refugee camps, receiving UNRWA services, or even refugee status has very little effect on Palestinian perceptions of refugee rights or the political importance they assign to the issue. That being said, Michael’s piece is more focussed on the signal it would send Israel, which is a somewhat different issue.

Just to reiterate: while I disagree with the political thrust of the INSS paper, my criticisms here have nothing to do with political differences. Rather, my comments have to do with the lack of basic understanding of this issue, and the extent to which it leads to poor policy analysis. That this sort of paper can—some 68 years after the birth of the refugee issue and after 22 years of the “peace process”—be written by a former official responsible for Palestinian issues and posted on the website of a major Israeli think-tank is really pretty shocking.