The Malta Independent 24 January 2022, Monday

Not a land flowing with milk and honey

Evarist Bartolo Tuesday, 30 November 2021, 09:52 Last update: about 3 months ago

On the 16th November, 2021, I took part in the Ministerial Conference in Brussels on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East organised by the governments of Jordan and Sweden.

UNRWA provides humanitarian assistance and contributes to the protection of refugees through delivering education, primary health care, mental health care, relief and social services, microcredit and emergency assistance, including in situations of armed conflict to more than 5.5 million registered Palestine refugees located in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza.

I paid tribute to the efforts by Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini to further modernise UNRWA’s organizational processes and structures and to prioritise the values of transparency and accountability in its operations. At the conference, Lazzarini said that UNRWA works to “ensure that Palestine refugees do not miss the train of global digital transformation… In our schools and in our vocational training centres this means developing the type of digital literacy that will allow children and youths to fully engage in today’s technological revolution.”

He explained that UNRWA is on the verge of financial collapse as political support is not being translated into matching financial support: “I do not know if UNRWA will receive sufficient funding to keep all its services running in November and December.” It needs a budget of US$800 million per year. Over 2 million poor refugees Palestine refugees will remain without food and cash assistance unable to make ends meet. Half a million children will lose their right to education. Covid-19 vaccination programmes will stop. Health centers will not be able to restock their medicine stores. Unpaid internet and electricity bills mean UNRWA will not deliver its services. Maternal and childcare will stop.

I confirmed that Malta will be providing further financial support to assist UNRWA in its operations this year and beyond. I augured that the meeting would help UNRWA stabilise its financial situation now and in the future. As UN Middle East Envoy Tom Wennesland told the Security Council six weeks ago, UNRWA remains indispensable for regional stability and must have the necessary resources to carry out its mandate.

A deepening sense of hopelessness

Often, humanitarian aid programmes suffer from budget shortfalls. Somehow the money needed for military expenditure never goes missing. We live in a world where for every dollar we pend on humanitarian aid, we spend 12 on armaments.

UNRWA is being starved of the required funds to serve the 5.5 million Palestine refugees. While holding UNRWA to account rigorously, the vicious attack on it must not be the continuation of war on Palestinians by other means. Peace in the Middle East remains elusive. Referring to the current state of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the UN Special Envoy said that political stagnation is fuelling tensions, instability and a deepening sense of hopelessness among Palestinians and those who would like to see the conflict resolved.

We need a peaceful, sustainable, negotiated solution to ending occupation. But it does not appear possible for the foreseeable future and although regularly we talk of believing in the two-state solution, we know that the way the reality on the ground is being shaped is undermining UN resolutions on this conflict and is making this solution impossible.

In fact, six weeks ago Tom Wennesland told the Security Council that Israeli plans for the construction of more settlements adjacent to and northeast of East Jerusalem would “sever the connection between the northern and southern West Bank, significantly undermining the chances or establishing a viable and continuous Palestinian state as part of a negotiated two-state solution… I reiterate that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.”

Meeting in Oslo on 18 November, 2021, the Middle East Quartet re-echoed the same concerns highlighting the urgency of the situation and the importance of taking constructive steps to advance a two-State solution, the importance of respect for human rights and the actions of civil society groups. They agreed to work toward a resolution of the conflict and continue consultations with the parties and key regional actors.

There will be no peace, until both the Israelis and the Palestinians enjoy equal human rights in two sovereign and secure states recognising each other’s right to exist. Tom Wennesland rightly warns us: “We must build consensus for engagement or face an increasing desperate reality.” Desperation is a luxury that 5.5 million Palestine refugees simply cannot afford. None of us can afford deeper desperation among Palestinian refugees. The consequences of their situation getting worse will have serious implications for the Middle East and beyond, for all of us. Helping UNRWA is helping ourselves.

***

The Envoys of the Middle East Quartet from the European Union, the Russian Federation, the United States, and the United Nations met in Oslo 12 days ago to address the Palestinian economic situation.

They welcomed steps announced by Israel to reach out to the Palestinian Authority and to assist with the fiscal crisis. They remain deeply concerned by developments in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, including ongoing acts of violence in the West Bank, the advancement of new settlement units, the untenable fiscal crisis within the Palestinian Authority and threats of violence from the Gaza Strip.

They called on all parties to take additional steps to address these challenges directly through fiscal and other reforms, as well as to avoid unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undermine the prospects for peace.

They said that the fragile situation in Gaza needs to be addressed -- with the support of all relevant stakeholders, including in the region -- by ensuring continued humanitarian efforts and an easing of access and movement restrictions for people and goods.

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