Friday, February 19, 2010

UNRWA chief steps down, still standing up.

AbuZayd: “Open Gaza’s borders”

From Ian Williams in New York MEI 18 Feb 2010

At the end of January, Karen AbuZayd stepped down as head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to be replaced by her Italian deputy, Filippo Grandi. During one term as deputy and two as commissioner-general, AbuZayd won the respect of staff who worked with her.

Since UNRWA incumbents were often singled out by the US, I asked whether she left or was pushed. She replied that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had encouraged her to extend her contract if she wanted. He then had to reassure Arab ambassadors that she was the one who had taken the decision to leave.

One would have thought that a name like AbuZayd could give rise to complications in dealing with Israeli officials, but she laughed when asked. “Their intelligence is supposed to be so good,” she said, “but when I became commissioner, I discovered that they thought it was because I had married a Palestinian, when in fact my husband was Sudanese.”

Relations with Israel are at the core of the job, with, of course, a sideline in coping with donation-hunting American politicians, who have repeatedly tried to cut funding to UNRWA or subsume it in the UN High Commission for Refugees. “We’ve always had this group in Congress continually attacking us over and over again with the same stories – even the Israelis defend us against them. We’ve answered them so many times, and they really know the answers, but it’s too easy for them to attack. But since the Gaza War, [Senator John] Kerry and others came in and saw Gaza. Now we have a group of 60 to 70 writing in support [of UNRWA], instead of the handful that used to.”

The week before she stepped down, Israel confirmed it was paying $10.5 million in reimbursement for the UNRWA supplies and buildings destroyed in Gaza during Cast Lead. She disclaims all credit, saying it was the Board of Investigation, led by Ian Martin, that made it possible. The secretary-general “took it to the Israelis, and the Israelis have been apologising profusely and profoundly for what they admitted were ‘mistakes’.”

She was not surprised at Ban’s tenacity pursuing compensation, adding that “he’s always stuck up for us and made strong statements when needed.” Nor was it a surprise to her that the Israelis settled. After Cast Lead, “the IDF [Israeli Defence Force] people we deal with were so apologetic, so embarrassed. They admitted: ‘We just don’t know what our fellow soldiers were doing’.”

Education under pressure
Until Gaza came under siege, perhaps the worst place to be a Palestinian was in Lebanon, but here, she admits, “I was certainly lucky because I took over when [Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora took over, so we were able to work in the camps, and worked with them very well, doing projects together, raising money, and the like, on the ground.” AbuZayd added that the new Lebanese government was working along the same lines and wants things to improve for the Palestinians, although ”everyone is clear, and so was Arafat: they know it is not feasible to stay in Lebanon if there is an end to the peace process. But that does not affect what we are doing now.”

Arab states, which once refused to pay on principle, have begun to contribute to UNRWA emergency funds, egged on by the Arab fundraising unit AbuZayd established. While emergency appeals raise money (recently another $80 million from the US, and over $40 million from the EU), her complaint is the strain on the core budget to maintain services, such as education and health, not to mention food. “They can’t let things collapse,” she said, “but they don’t give enough for us to really develop, to end the double shifts in schools, for example.”

Looking back over her UNRWA career, Gaza clearly predominates, and she confessed that “if anything, things have become worse throughout the nine years that I’ve been there. The Palestinians don’t have a state, and don’t look as if they are likely to soon. Physical conditions have become worse for most people.”

Admitting to be perplexed at Egypt’s refusal earlier this year to allow the international solidarity convoys through, she warned: “I don’t know what would happen if the Egyptian wall were built. People can’t survive on the few trucks we can bring in through the one crossing that’s working, that’s shared with commercial traffic, only open daylight hours and never open every day anyway. We can only bring in medicine and food, and very basic food at that.”

AbuZayd concluded with her short-term recipe for Gaza: “Open the borders.” Still, after nine years with UNRWA she cannot accept that, despite UN resolutions, previous commitments, and international law, the world’s nations have done nothing to persuade Israel to do so.

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