Palestine Report & Jordan Times
26 October 2003

Interview with UNRWA Commissioner-General, Peter Hansen.
By Omar Karmi

The intifada has drastically affected the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and made working conditions for the organisation that caters to their needs, UNRWA, very difficult. UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen talks to Omar Karmi about the destruction in Rafah, criticism of the organisation, the difficulties of securing donations and staff morale.

Q: How is the situation in Rafah?

Hansen: This is not the first time we see destruction in Rafah. It has been ongoing. I donít know how many times Iíve been down there and seen another camp completely flattened, seen people bereft of everything they have. It is actually quite shocking to see the belongings. Iíve collected things like childrenís exercise books from schools and other personal belongings. Little mementos like that reminds you of the experience of children being woken up at two oíclock at night by a bulldozer running over their house.

You have a very striking picture of people fleeing. But fleeing to where? If youíre in Rafah, you canít go south because there is a border, you canít go west because there is an ocean, and you canít go north and you canít go east because there is nowhere to go. You canít get out of Gaza. So, if youíve been a refugee many times over there is no longer anywhere to where you can flee.

There are people gathering their belongings Ė household items like mattresses and kitchen utensils and so on Ė onto donkey carts. There was a big traffic jam of donkey carts trying to get away. It was very much this mixture of fear and palpable anger. People come up to you as if you had been driving the bulldozer.

Still, you still can understand the despair of people Ė who are for the overwhelming majority completely innocent victims Ė at losing everything. There might be this or that person who has participated in smuggling operations. There might have been houses from where "militants" with weapons have been shooting. But itís not as if you have two evenly balanced opponents facing each other. It is overwhelming power Ė hi-tech, Ďhi-weightí in terms of power Ė against brittle cinder blocks, old women and young people, some of whom have been violent. But they have been violent in what for them to see is a justified resistance against the occupation.

Q: What is the extent of the damage?

Hansen: I have to be very, very careful when I give numbers. Iím invariably called a liar by Israeli spokespersons, who [in this case] said there were only ten houses destroyed that weekend. We made a preliminary estimate, which was that 120 houses had been destroyed. It turns out that I actually underestimated the number. One hundred and forty eight houses were destroyed. Since then, there has been further destruction, so until now, in October, we are talking about 189. And I would challenge anybody to come to Rafah to join our social workers and go around and take a count of where there have been houses and now thereís only rubble.

Q: What is the possibility of getting restitution from those responsible for the destruction?

Hansen: I shouldnít say that Iím not optimistic, because then it will be obvious that we are only writing these letters as a formality. I have just today written the Israeli foreign minister detailing some of the value that has been destroyed, not only in a human sense, but also the housing that has to be raised. We have detailed all these losses but so far we have yet to get any restitution.

Q: How can UNRWA respond to such a situation?

Hansen: In considering any response, we must consider the totality of the situation, which is that there is an ongoing cycle of violence. We must not lose sight of the fact that there are two parties to a conflict, no matter how asymmetrical they are in power, and how asymmetrical they may be in the legitimacy of their cause.

It is extremely difficult for UNRWA to keep up with the cleaning up, literally, and to make donor countries continue to keep coming up with money so we can rebuild, rebuild and rebuild. We have now built close to 500 houses, 250 of them have been moved into and 250 are close to this stage. But we have seen a destruction rate that outpaces our re-construction rate.

So, what we are doing is to appeal to donors that all these people have been made homeless and we are trying to re-house them. The international community has recognized responsibility for this refugee population and we cannot just let them sleep on the ruins of their former homes as some of them have done for several nights, or pack them back in tents. So we are rebuilding shanties, we are providing some cash assistance so people can rent rooms. We are providing some tents and mattresses, blankets and food.

This is what we can do, while always continuing to appeal to both parties here that there are no humanitarian aid solutions to the misery. There can only be political solutions and it takes both parties to be serious about seeking solutions and seeking support from their populations for them.

Q: How far do you see the local communities helping?

Hansen: The main role is not what outside actors can do, but what the local homegrown coping capacity is, and what we have to keep in mind is how we can reinforce and how we can strengthen that. I think we should never forget the remittances and other things that are being sent back to Palestine from families abroad, because there are a number of things that does require outside assistance. But without the local community coping, there is nothing that can really be done by the outside.

Q: How difficult is it at the moment to persuade donor countries to continue giving?

Hansen: Itís very difficult. We are performing at under fifty percent of what we are asking for this year. When the crisis started we were getting more than a hundred [percent]. That clearly shows that there is fatigue in the donor community. And all this takes place in a world where the overall ODA [official development assistance] made available for international causes has been falling while the demand has been increasing. That means that there is less and less to go around to worse and worse situations.

Q: Do you think that people are wary of giving after September 11, especially to this region?

Hansen: Iím sure it has an effect. What I cannot say is how large or small that effect is, or whether that effect is based on a simple revenge motive, however misguided it would be, or whether it is motivated by lack of hope that this [conflict] is ever going end.

Q: How serious do you think both sides are in trying to reach a settlement?

Hansen: I certainly feel that there are elements on both sides who can sit down and talk and can reach solutions that both can live with. My worry is that these elements are shrinking fast in both populations, so that when the solutions that could form the basis for peace are articulated, they might not be able to gain the requisite support among the rank and file of the two peoples. And I think weíve seen very clear indications of that over the past year. I think that the violence being perpetrated, mainly by suicide bombers, has had a very strong resonance in the international community that has caused a revulsion that has been very, very counterproductive for the general interest in peace and more specifically the interest of the Palestinians to reach a peace.

Q: What do you say to those who have criticized UNRWA schools for being places of incitement?

Hansen: We keep our schools clean of political statements. We insist with our staff that the schools are not politicized or incitement institutions. However, children who are daily exposed to the abuses of an occupation power, people who are daily humiliated cannot really peaceably abstract everything from the situation in which they live. Itís a lot to ask people to just forget about the situation, and I think that everybody watching the situation should be able to understand that.

Much of the criticism leveled at UNRWA, is completely over the top and off the wall. The most ridiculous accusations Ė that our schools are used for military training for the children, that our clinics are bomb factories, that our ambulances transport ammunition Ė have of course never been supported by a shred of evidence. There are a great number of intelligent Israelis who can see that UNRWA is really helping them carrying out their obligations as an occupying power and therefore are deserving of full support from Israel.

Then there are the attacks against UNRWA for the teaching in schools, as if this particular place in the world and this particular phase in history is the only occasion where the question of schoolbooks and what values and stereotypes it instills in people have been an issue. What these people forget to note, is that there has been, as there has been in Israel, a continuous improvement towards greater tolerance in the Arab textbooks. And the greatest improvement in that respect has been in the new Palestinian curriculum. Both international and Israeli researchers have said, rightly in my opinion, that instead of harping on and on about this and misrepresenting it as hate propaganda, the new Palestinian schoolbook curriculum should be praised for its lack of incitement.

Q: How are your relations with the two governments?

As I said, many in Israel realize the value of UNRWA and have supported UNRWA and have praised UNRWA. What the Israelis authorities do not like is that I talk about some of these problems with journalists and they write about them. They think that describing things as they are here on the ground is politicization, something that I donít agree with. I challenge them to produce anything Iíve said thatís been one-sided or unbalanced. I try my best to look at these things from a perspective that involves putting yourself in the shoes of the other party, which I hope that everybody would always do, and which I have done on Arab TV.

With the Palestinian Authority, maybe it follows from the type of assistance that we are able to give to the Palestinian refugee population that that is welcomed, not unnaturally. That does not mean that we do not have a number of differences with the Palestinian Authority on a number of issues. Some have been petty, whether to fly Palestinian flags on our institutions. We are a UN institution, so we fly the UN flag, we use the UN symbols, and we cannot just be sort of taken over as if we were Palestinian institutions.

Of course we have a special relationship as being part of the public service to the population. But that must be a service that is delivered and provided with full respect for the integrity of the independence of the UN.