ICAI Commissioner Mark Foster visits the Occupied Palestinian Territories
Part I Gaza and the West Bank
I have had a unique and moving experience this month as I spent ten days visiting Palestine refugee camps in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Lebanon. This was my first real visit to the region and I was exposed to a fire hose of information, insights, perspectives and prejudices as I spent time with ambassadors, government officials, UN agency personnel, donor representatives, teachers, doctors and, of course, the refugees themselves across this troubled geography.
I visited refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Beirut and saw first-hand the different challenges faced by their inhabitants in each disparate environment and “host” country. It was a chance to understand more about a part of the world that has been a constant in the news throughout my life but which, I discovered, I really knew very little about. It was also an opportunity to judge the prospects for the future in this complex situation.
It is always the field visits which really bring my role as an ICAI Commissioner to life. As I landed in Tel Aviv and headed straight from the airport to experience the realities of the border crossing into Gaza, I gained a keen sense of the lives and existences which are at the heart of the aid agenda. ICAI’s review concerns the work of the UN agency UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency) which was originally established in 1949 to provide humanitarian support to the 700,000 refugees who fled Palestine in 1948 after ‘Al Nakba’ – or ‘the catastrophe’. It now provides education, health and social support services to the more than 5 million refugees in camps across Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
I must admit that, before this trip, I was not really aware of the existence of this agency, which is really a kind of “state” services provider for the refugees, and employs some 30,000 of them as teachers, doctors, nurses and administrators, primarily in the camps. The mandate has been renewed every three years since 1949 and, while its focus has evolved, it remains for the Palestine refugees one of the most potent symbols of the commitment of the international community to their right of return, alongside its role as a primary services provider. The UK is one of the larger donors to UNRWA, after the US and the EU, and our remit is to look at the way that DFID works to ensure that its contribution has the most impact on the lives of the beneficiaries. We were not able to visit Syria, due to the dangers arising from the current conflict, but we did see first-hand the knock on effect that this new tragedy is having on the region and the camps which are in danger of being swamped by new refugees.
After navigating the triple border crossing into Gaza, passing through Israeli, Palestinian Authority and Hamas checkpoints and a kilometre-long chain link corridor through no man’s land, we arrived at our first stop which was a new school that had been built as one of thirteen to be funded in Gaza by DFID. The new schools are required to combat the chronic overcrowding in the camps, which has resulted in most schools operating two shifts (and in some cases three) to deal with the burgeoning population in Gaza.
In Nuseirat Camp we met with teachers and parents at a nearby old school and saw the children squeezed three to a desk in classes of over 45. The parents expressed many grievances, mainly with regard to the challenges of the lack of facilities and provision for children with special needs. They were, however, incredibly proud of the education outcomes that were being achieved. This was to be a refrain throughout the trip as we saw the positive impact of the Palestinian refugee teachers and their passion for education overcoming the obstacles they face every day and delivering some of the best exam results in the region. Of course, there is more to school than passing tests, and the evidence of the mental trauma of being brought up in the midst of a prolonged conflict struck home when some parents complained that their children were being affected by the sounds of torture coming from the prison just outside the school gates.
We had a particularly lively meeting with one of the Camp Committees which represent the refugees. They were very exercised by the recent efforts to shift from food to cash provision as part of the social safety net provided by UNRWA, but they were even more angry about the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which had promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine. They demanded that I apologise on behalf of the British Government for their situation – a telling and very real example of the long reach of history – I had to explain carefully that this was not within my remit.
We returned through the checkpoints and headed for Jerusalem for a series of meetings with the UK Consul General, DFID and other donor leadership, as well as representatives of UNRWA regional headquarters for the West Bank Field. We also travelled out to Ramallah to speak with senior members of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PLO. This was a unique opportunity for me to gain some sense of the wider context within which the aid to the camps is being delivered. The resolution of the status of the refugees is one of the key areas at the heart of the Middle East Peace Process which has seen little progress in recent years. It is also clear that the complex set of relationships between the Israeli government, the PA, the neighbouring Jordanian and Lebanese governments and the evolving situation in Syria has created a volatile environment which further challenges UNRWA operations.
The camps have evolved over the past 65 years from the original tented compounds, through makeshift shelters to what are now, in many cases, municipalities. The access into and out of the camps varies from host country to host country, as do the rights the refugees have in host societies and how integrated they are able or wish to become. In the West Bank the PA also provides services to the refugees. We travelled out to several camps and visited schools and clinics in the region. We were impressed at the way relatively sophisticated family health models and eHealth solutions have begun to be rolled out. In an attempt to ensure that we got a real sense for the situation we went on an unannounced walkabout in the poor Jalazone Camp and I joined a group of older refugees playing cards in a bar. They had a keen sense for the history of the camps and balanced their appreciation for the work of UNRWA with a clear concern that services (especially food distribution and access to secondary healthcare) had been reduced in recent years as donors came under pressure to fund the rising demands of the fast-growing camp populations.
We also met with a number of youths on a street corner, one of whom was an unemployed university-qualified accountant, and they bemoaned the lack of work and livelihood opportunities which resulted from their constrained status as camp refugees in the limited West Bank economy. The school in the town, which we dropped-in on unannounced, was very overcrowded and sat adjacent to a prosperous Jewish settlement, separated by a wall and a no man’s land of scrub.
We travelled to Jordan taking the longer five-hour road route to use a crossing over the River Jordan where we did not require a special kind of visa. Throughout this trip our own difficulties in passing from country to country and accessing the camps brought home the challenges which the populations face every day. And then there are the concrete walls which now snake across the arid landscape partitioning the Israeli settlements from the camps and reinforcing the sense of constriction and alienation in what is actually not a large piece of geography.