CAIRO: Karen Koning AbuZayd has been the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for the past two and a half years. Working out of the Gaza Strip for over seven years now, AbuZayd oversees an organization providing relief, health and education services to 4.4 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.In this exclusive interview with Daily News Egypt in Cairo, AbuZayd talked about the work of the agency and the current condition of Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Territories, specifically the Gaza Strip.
Daily News Egypt: Why are Palestinians located in the Gaza Strip considered refugees? Are they not living in Palestinian territories?
Karen Koning AbuZayd: Because that’s not their home. They are externally displaced [from 1948 onwards] from their home, which is not their home anymore. They have fled their homes in fear of persecution, like all refugees around the world.
Which area containing Palestinian refugees needs the efforts of the UNRWA the most?
Well, right now Gaza and then the West Bank, but also Lebanon. Lebanon has always needed more attention because the refugees were the most unwelcome there and we weren’t allowed to improve conditions in the camps. They are not allowed to work so that took a lot of focus. But in the last two years the Lebanese government began to help us improve conditions in the camp and began to lighten up on work restrictions.
But of course, what’s happening in the Occupied Territories is the worst of all, not just physically but also politically, psychologically. People are living under occupation, and now with Hamas winning the elections in January 2006 and the international community placing restrictions, and [again] since June when there was the internal conflict and more restrictions, people are just in a terrible situation.
They are just given barely enough food; the World Food Program said we are barely getting in half of what we need. They are getting just barely enough medicine. They can’t get in and out of Gaza, they can’t move around on the West Bank either, there are problems there as well with all the closures and the separation barrier. You cannot live on just basic food and medicines.
We are talking about an urban setting in Gaza where people live in high rise buildings. Even the refugee camps are buildings. You need electricity to pump your water; you need more than just food. Some of the things that have gone missing are detergents [and] light-bulbs. We can’t run the second shift of our schools because the children cannot see; there are no neon lights. After six weeks of negotiating, the Israeli Defense Forces have allowed us to take in one half of the nylon bags that we need to distribute our food, our flour, so we can only do half the distribution in the proper way. This semester we have to renegotiate getting in paper for our textbooks. This is because all of these things are considered dual purpose. They might be used for something else, so they are prohibited. We have 10,000 workers in Gaza and every month we have to negotiate getting in our cash to pay them. So everybody is sort of semi-living.
We need freedom of movement, we need access, we need open borders, but we know that it is utopian to think of that in an occupied situation. They never have been open; Israel has always controlled who goes in and out and what goes in and out.
Do you consider Israeli caution to that extent justified?
No, I don’t. I understand they have to do something to make clear they don’t like rockets fired at them, but we are talking about severe punishment to the whole population of the Gaza Strip. As you’d hear from any Gazan who would say, “We are being punished for what a few people are doing.
And it’s not even mostly Hamas that’s doing it. It’s Islamic Jihad that’s throwing out most of the rockets, and there are other Islamic groups.
Is this mass punishment reaching or affecting the people Israel is aiming for?
It’s not, of course. I think it’s like any sanctioned regime; it’s the poor people who suffer the most. That seems quite clear to me in Gaza too.
Other people are managing; it’s the poor people who are stuck. They can’t move, there’s no fuel for cars. For a time we were getting a lot more donkeys into Gaza to transport things, but even that wasn’t good enough because you can’t even feed the donkeys.
There are no imports or exports, everything is collapsing. Businesses are collapsing – 3,200 businesses collapsed in the summer over June. That meant another 80,000 people on the unemployment rolls. Eighty percent of the Gaza Strip is dependant on humanitarian assistance.
How are your dealings with the Hamas government in Gaza?
I don’t deal with them directly. My directors and my chiefs deal with their technical people.
There needs to be at least some level of cooperation?
Yes, of course. And they are very respectful of us. They certainly provide some security around our buildings and so on, but we really deal with them from a distance and they understand that.
Where is this going if the situation remains as it is currently?
Since the Israelis, Americans and others have insisted that they will never let it really be a catastrophe – it’s very close to that – then at some point they have to lighten up. First of all, this is not serving their objective. Their objective is to get the people to get rid of Hamas. That’s not going to happen, and that’s not what happens in these situations. In fact, people who support Hamas will support them more strongly. It’s not their fault, what’s happening. I hope people will see sense.
What are the differences between the refugees in Gaza and the West Bank?
Well, Gaza is certainly more “occupied than the West Bank, I would say. Often we look at Gaza and it is so obvious how bad it is there, but we forget that things are pretty bad in the West Bank, especially now as we see things changing and there is a lot of attention to it and some things are getting better.
But the closures and the separation barrier, and the amount of land being gobbled up by the Israelis, and the way the whole of the West Bank is cut up into small pieces, it also makes us very worried. Where is the future viable Palestinian State? You don’t see where it can be, because there is no connection between the pieces of the West Bank.
And the problem of almost complete enclosure of Jerusalem has made additional problems for people who used to have their jobs in Jerusalem or a husband and wife, where one works in Ramallah and the other in Jerusalem. They have to make choices: one loses a job or they change their residence.
People can’t get to the hospitals. The hospitals we support for refugees are only getting half the patients they used to get, which means we can only give them half of the money, which means some of them are in big trouble.
People can’t visit their mosques, they can’t visit their families, they can’t go to their schools and some cannot get to their jobs. Life is difficult depending where you live in the West Bank – you can’t move around, you’re waiting, you’re humiliated.
[This] happens everyday in Gaza and around the West Bank . there are incursions every night in the West Bank too, in some village or in some town where they are destroying houses or arresting people, killing people and so on. The war goes on and nobody’s noticing and it’s gone in the news. You see the children standing at the checkpoints looking up at how their fathers or mothers are treated by the Israelis, and it’s just so awful.