Thursday, December 31, 2009

My letter to the NYTimes RE: A Mideast Bond, Stitched of Pain and Healing

A young Palestinian woman paints a mural to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Israel's offensive in Gaza, in Gaza City, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

RE: A Mideast Bond, Stitched of Pain and Healing

Dear Editor,

Reading "
A Mideast Bond, Stitched of Pain and Healing " on New Year's Eve day, I can not help but hope that 2010 will bring in a new and mutually beneficial trajectory for all the many people who have been harmed in many ways by the rampant religious extremism and violence inspired by the ongoing Middle East conflict. Compassion, empathy, conciliation and a negotiated settlement for Israel and Palestine which firmly respects all basic human rights (and the rule of fair and just laws) certainly would be a good start to the process of making peace for the people's sake.

Anne Selden Annab

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

PCBS: 10.88 million Palestinians in the world, half in diaspora refugees in Bethlehem protest for the right of return [MaanImges]

PCBS: 10.88 million Palestinians in the world, half in diaspora
Published yesterday (updated) 30/12/2009 22:04

Bethlehem - Ma'an - The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics released a report on the Palestinian population worldwide, noting a decrease in family size for the population living in Palestinian territories.

The report counted a total of 10.9 million Palestinians worldwide by the end of 2009, with 2.5 million in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, 1.5million in the Gaza Strip and 1.25 million living in Israel. More than half of the world Palestinian population, the report noted, live in the diaspora.

Of those living in the diaspora 3.24 million live in Jordan (29.8%); 1.78 million (16.3%) in the other Arab countries, and 618,000 in orther foreign countries.

Of those living in Palestinian areas, 45.0% are internally displaced refugees. By area, the numbers broke down to 18.8% of the West Bank population and 26.2% of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Population growth

PCBS also analyzed historic data between 1997-2007, measuring family size and fertility rates.

In 2007 the fertility rate was 4.6 births per woman; compared with 6.0 births in 1997. The reported noted that despite a decrease in fartility rates, natural population growth continued. In 2009, growth continued at 2.9%.

Data indicated a fall in average family size from 6.4 in 1997 to 5.8 in 2007, while birthrates also fell from 42.7 births per 1,000 to 32.7 per 1,000 in 2009.

Death rates have also declined in Palestine, from 4.9 deaths per 1,000 in 1997 to 4.3 in 2009.

One Year Later: UNRWA's Response to the Crisis in Gaza (Friends of UNRWA Association)

Last Sunday marked the one year anniversary of the most destructive military assault in Gaza’s history. Operation Cast Lead resulted in the death of over 1,400 Palestinians and more than 5,000 injuries and widespread destruction of public and private property.

Today, the bombing has ended, but the devastation endures. The men, women and children of Gaza continue to face the intensely daunting task of rebuilding their lives following the loss of loved ones, homes, personal belongings, dignity, and the routine of daily life that so many of us take for granted.

The current reality for Palestinian refugees is heartbreaking and on-going, but for 60 years, UNRWA has alleviated their pain. UNRWA supplies not just housing, food and healthcare but protection, sustenance, and compassion. Throughout the past year, UNRWA continues to remind the people of Gaza that they are not alone and that in their darkest hours, the international community is there to offer them a helping hand.

As the humanitarian crisis persists, UNRWA continues to be the lifeline for those struggling to survive:

  • FOOD - Between January and December 2009, UNRWA distributed emergency food assistance in Gaza, covering an estimated 60 percent of a family’s daily calorific needs. Each beneficiary family, in accordance with its size, receives a single parcel including flour, rice, sugar, sunflower oil, whole milk and luncheon meat. Today, more than 80% of Gazans now rely on this emergency food aid provided by UNRWA’s Emergency Relief program.
  • SHELTER - Home repair and rehabilitation activities ensure safe, dignified and minimum standards of housing for Gazan families whose homes were destroyed or damaged during the recent crisis. Over 50,000 Gazans who fled their homes were housed temporarily in 50 temporary shelters opened by UNRWA in schools across the Gaza Strip. Tents were distributed to 895 families; 6,652 families received tarpaulin; 2,366 families received parcels of new clothes and 400 families received kitchen kits. Blankets, mattresses, sleeping mats, family mats and hygiene kits were received by more than 46,000 families.
  • EDUCATION - All UNRWA schools reopened on January 24, 2009, within one week of the declaration of ceasefires. Today, the UNRWA school system provides a safe and secure learning environment for more than 200,000 refugee children. A range of approaches have been used to help students and teachers re-engage with the learning process. Recreational activities have been organized, open learning approaches encouraged and evening homework sessions organized for students, to help catch up with teaching time lost during the war.
  • HEALTH - UNRWA has expanded the Community Mental Health Program in an effort to mitigate the immediate and longer term effects of the recent conflict on the population in Gaza and contribute to the rehabilitation of affected families and communities. Counselors have identified more than 18,000 students at UNRWA schools as directly involved in the war by being directly exposed to one or more tragedies like loss of home or close family member. While some of these students showed spontaneous recovery most of them underwent counseling and other psychosocial interventions. Training was provided for over 5,000 UNRWA teachers on dealing with students affected by the war and awareness raising activities were held for 25,212 refugees.

Now more than ever, UNRWA needs the support of its friends. For the past sixty years, UNRWA has steadfastly championed the refugees of Palestine by providing health, education, and emergency services. Today, this UN agency needs your assistance to carry on its vital mission.

In 2009, your generous support helped American Friends of UNRWA raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the desperately needed work of UNRWA, including special food and medical aid to Gaza. Please consider making an end of the year tax-deductible donation today.

Your donation to American Friends of UNRWA will ensure the continuation of UNRWA’s programs and services for the people of Palestine. This year, more than ever, every gift is critical in helping UNRWA to further its mission.

You can make your tax-deductible
contribution online by clicking here, which will lead you to our safe and secure website. Alternatively, you may mail your contribution to the Friends of UNRWA Association, 1666 K Street NW, Suite 440, Washington, DC 20006.

Thank you for your continued support and your personal commitment to UNRWA and the Palestine refugees



Mona Alami

AMMAN (IPS) - Music enlivens the yellow taxi as it traverses the Jordanian capital. A small Palestinian flag hangs from the rearview mirror. Jihad, the cab driver, says his father fled here from the Palestinian West Bank in 1948.

"Thank God almighty, life is good for me here and I can offer my family a decent life," he says. "While my father was Palestinian, I feel today Jordanian and I hold the Jordanian nationality. No distinction is made in this country between Jordanian nationals and those of Palestinian descent."

According to the records of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), Jordan is home to 1.9 million displaced Palestinians. "Jordan hosts about 42 percent of the total refugee population," says Mattar Sakr, director of public relations for UNRWA in Jordan.

Sakr adds that most refugees reside in 13 camps, three of them considered unofficial dwellings because they were not assigned by the government.

Not everyone in Jordan is as lucky as Jihad the taxi driver, however. Some 140,000 Palestinian refugees from Gaza do not have the right to permanent citizenship because UNRWA considers Palestinian refugees as people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948.

Some 4.5 million of the displaced worldwide fit this description while the rest are often left in limbo with regards to obtaining internationally recognised passports.

The disparity between West Bank and Gaza refugees in Jordan began after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, when Transjordan (which is now the West Bank and parts of Jordan) became part of the Hashemite Kingdom and Gaza became part of Egypt.

Palestinians residing in the kingdom up until 1954 were granted Jordanian citizenship. However, after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel occupied territories in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, forcing a new wave of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to seek asylum in Jordan.

"Most refugees originated from Gaza, which was at the time under Egyptian authority," explains Sakr. Unlike the Palestinians who came from the West Bank, Gaza residents did not have Jordanian citizenship and many of them moved into temporary residences, mainly in the Jarash camp. They were instead granted temporary passports that were renewable every two years.

Hamed (his name has been changed for the purpose of anonymity) is one of Jordan?s "temporary citizens," whose house is located in the warrens of the al-Wahdat Palestinian refugee camp in Amman. Like many other urban camps, al-Wahdat is a typically impoverished concrete city.

"I came to Amman after the 1967 war with my wife. It was supposed to be a temporary thing, but I have been living here ever since with my four children and 20 grandchildren," recalls Hamed.

Sakr acknowledges that unlike other Jordanians, temporary residents do not have access to the full array of governmental services because of their special status.

"As Gaza Palestinians, we do not benefit from public schooling," explains Hamed, who adds that his grandchildren attend UNRWA schools.

"It is also very difficult for us to send our children to university because they are considered Arab students and, therefore, pay higher fees than Jordanian nationals. We?re very poor as you can see," Hamed says, pointing to the rundown six-room house where his whole family resides.

Asma, his neighbor and a mother of five, explains that holders of temporary passports are not eligible for social security services or government funded healthcare.

"My husband, a holder of the temporary nationality, does not have access to any public programmes and has to seek employment in the private sector. He earns about 150 dinars (210 US dollars) a month, which is the minimum wage. His job is also unstable: sometimes, he?s out of a job for two weeks out of the month."

Sakr explains that although not entitled to government funded medical services, refugees can use UNRWA medical centers, 174 of which are located throughout Jordan.

Other restrictions of temporary passport holders include not having the right to vote or own property, except if they have a local Jordanian partner. "The house where I live, with my children and grandchildren, is owned by the government and we can be evicted at any time," says Hamed.

Hamed and Asma also complain about travel restrictions, saying that it is difficult for them to leave Jordan, especially to visit family members in Palestine. "I was never provided with the proper Israeli authorisation that would allow me to visit my family," says Asma.

Sakr, however, denies that there is any travel ban against holders of temporary nationalities. "Many of them have left Jordan to establish themselves in the Gulf area to work," he replies.

Although travel should not be a problem for Gaza refugees for the most part, Sakr admits that they are confronted with more difficult living conditions than other socioeconomic classes and are more vulnerable to the incumbent economic crisis as well as high unemployment and dropout levels. "All of this has resulted in their marginalisation," he says.

In a speech to army commanders in August 2009, King Abdullah II -ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom - vowed to uphold the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in compliance with UN resolutions, saying, "This attitude will not change and no power can force on Jordan an attitude that runs counter to its interest."

While the pledge is praiseworthy, it may be a long time before the fate of Palestinian refugees is settled considering the apparent indifference of Arab countries and Western powers. Emergency camps have become permanent places of residence, and Gaza refugees remain on the outer fringes of citizenship, stuck in a no man?s land. - Dec 21, 2009 (END)

Hope Springs Eternal By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH

Date posted: December 30, 2009
By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH

Here comes the New Year. There is something rejuvenating about the start of another year, its true. We all tend to perk up a bit, make promises to ourselves and others and hope – like all the years before – that this one will be great.

On the personal level, I still do that. One cannot but hope that this year will be a bit different, better. Stupidly enough, I even hope that things will be better for the Palestinians, even though all the indicators point to the contrary.

I mean, there have been some good signs, right? The EU, under Swedish presidency, called for Jerusalem to be the capital of two states (true, in a watered down version of their first statement), the American people elected Barack Obama, who if anything, is the best of the worst, and Justice Richard Goldstone issued a report on the Israeli invasion of Gaza last winter that finally put Israel's crimes into the limelight. Yes, there have been some signs indicating that certain truths about Israel's oppression of the Palestinians are rising to the surface of the years' long smokescreen of fallacies. A British court issued an arrest warrant for Kadima leader Tzipi Livni for her part in the crimes committed in Gaza during Cast Lead and a Swedish journalist accused Israel of illegally harvesting organs from Palestinians it killed during the first Intifada (an allegation admitted by an Israeli forensics expert later). Spanish foreign minister Miguel Mortathinos, whose country is to take over the EU presidency at the beginning of the new year, said one of his goals was to work towards the establishment of a Palestinian state. "My idea, and my dream, and my engagement, is to work for having in 2010, finally, a Palestinian state."

It sounds all good, I must admit. If only words could be immediately translated into actions, Livni would be behind bars, settlements would be halted completely and the Palestinians would be ruling themselves in their sovereign state with the Palestinian flag flying over east Jerusalem. Unfortunately, however, intentions go but so far and the fact remains that the situation on the ground is as bleak as ever.

I'm wondering what the new year will bring for those who have lost so much? For the people of Gaza, New Years brings the reminder of the horrors of last winter, when Israel pounded the Strip for 22 days on end and killed scores of innocent people. I don't think the Samoudi family, who lost 48 members in the invasion, will have much to celebrate. Neither will the Sukarji and Abu Sharkh families in Nablus, whose sons were executed just last week by invading Israeli troops at point blank range, one of them before his pregnant wife and children. How about the demolished homes and the confiscated land, the prisoners and their families? There are scores of Palestinians, unrecognized soldiers, who pay the price of Israel's occupation every day and for whom empty words from politicians mean absolutely nothing.

Realistically, most Palestinian predictions for 2010 are hardly full of hope. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the top of Israel's government, what can we really expect? Even when one of his own has been hidden away in captivity somewhere in the marshland of Gaza, Netanyahu does not bend. Gilad Shalit is not coming home any time soon from the looks of it, but then again, neither are the 10,000 plus Palestinian prisoners who have languished in Israeli jails for years.

But let's not forget our own messy house either. The Palestinians are no closer to reconciliation now than they were six months ago. On the contrary, the longer our leaders remain divided, the more bitter the division becomes. If anything, all Palestinians, from all political spectrums and all walks of life should pool their collective psychic energies into one direction – hope that the Palestinians will reconcile and reunite so they can get back to fighting for their ultimate goal of eliminating the Israeli occupation. This, contrary to our conflict with the Israelis, is actually attainable in the near future, if we set our minds to it. And once that is achieved, we can then move forward with isolating Israel and bringing it to justice.

I think perhaps the one thing to be learned is that there is always some glimmer of hope no matter how bleak. As a Palestinian I ache for my country and all that it has endured. I also know that as long as we continue to call ourselves Palestinians and refuse to compromise our love and loyalty to this land, there will always be the possibility of a better year and a better future for us all.

Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rafah sunset : The minarets of a mosque are silhouetted against the sky at sunset in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on the border with Egypt. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Majority of children suffering psychological trauma one year after Gaza conflict

Majority of children suffering psychological trauma one year after Gaza conflict

The majority of children in Gaza are suffering from anxiety, depression or behavioural problems as result of their experiences of conflict and living through a deepening humanitarian crisis, warns Save the Children.

One year on from Israel's three-week military offensive in Gaza, leading psychologists working with the children's charity report that many Palestinian children in Gaza are suffering sustained psychological damage as their experiences of violence and loss during the conflict are compounded by the hardships of life under the blockade.

Osama Damo, aid worker for Save the Children in Gaza, said: "This is a traumatised nation. Many children we work with are not able to sleep at night for fear of soldiers returning. Others cry at the sound of loud noises, mistaking them for military jets and tanks coming to bomb their homes. Young children in Gaza are surviving under extreme levels of stress, which will pose long-term dangers not only for their mental health, but for the future of the region."

Save the Children warns that until Israel's tight restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza are lifted and the threat of further conflict eased, the mental health of the 780,000 children living in Gaza could continue to deteriorate.

Osama Damo continued: 'The psychological crisis facing children in Gaza just keeps getting worse. Thousands of children are still living in half-destroyed homes or in over-crowded conditions with host families. Hundreds still live in tents where they risk being attacked by packs of wild dogs and don't have proper protection against the cold and rain."

Research currently being conducted by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme suggests that the majority of children in Gaza are showing signs of anxiety, depression and behavioural problems, including aggression and bed-wetting.

Dr Ahmed Abu Tawanheena, Director of Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, has worked with victims of trauma in Gaza for 20 years. He said:

"The safety and comfort children rely on their parents for has been destroyed twice in one year: first, during the conflict, when they saw their parents terrified and unable to protect them from the violence. Now, under the blockade, they see their parents are still unable to provide for their basic needs, such as shelter or food. Many children report feeling abandoned by their parents and by the outside world, and parents are left struggling with feelings of guilt. It's a crisis which is threatening families and communities across the Gaza Strip."

Osama Damo said: "Save the Children's priority is to try and restore a sense of well-being and normality for children in Gaza. We are helping them take baby steps towards regaining their childhood, but there's a huge job in front of us. If things are really to change for children here, there has to be an immediate lifting of the blockade to allow children to recover, and Israeli, Palestinian and international governments have to act urgently to make this happen."

As part of its emergency response to the conflict, Save the Children provided psychological support to children in Gaza, creating 'safe places' where they could play, draw and express themselves. Save the Children has been working in Gaza since 1973, where we are currently running health, child protection and education projects.

For more information and interviews with Osama Damo in Gaza, Save the Children Gaza experts in London or with Dr Ahmed Abu Tawanheena, Director of Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, please contact Save the Children's media unit on +44 7831 650 409.

In Ramallah on Dec. 27, a vigil is held to mark the one-year anniversary of the Gaza war. Majdi Mohammed/AP One year later in Gaza, December 29, 2009 (12 of 15) Previous | Next

Monday, December 28, 2009

US opposes new settlements in east Jerusalem: White House

US opposes new settlements in east Jerusalem: White House

HONOLULU, Hawaii (AFP) – The United States is opposed to building new Jewish settlements in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, the White House said Monday, calling for fresh talks on the future of the disputed territory.

"The United States opposes new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem," spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

"The status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved by the parties through negotiations and supported by the international community," he said, adding that the two sides should return to the negotiating table "as soon as possible."

"The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply important issue for Israelis and Palestinians, and for Jews, Muslims, and Christians," Gibbs said.

He added: "We believe that through good faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem, and safeguards its status for people around the world."

Gibbs issued his statement amid news reports in Israel which said the government had invited tenders for the building of hundreds of more homes in Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem.

East Jerusalem settlements already house some 200,000 Jewish settlers alongside its 270,000 Palestinian residents.

Israel's continued expansion of settlements is one of the biggest obstacles to the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, now suspended for a year.

Israel, which captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it in a move which has not been recognized by the international community.

Israel insists that the entire city is its "eternal, indivisible" capital, but Palestinians are determined to make the city's eastern sector the capital of their promised state, a goal endorsed earlier this month by the European Union.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lecture by UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd: Palestine Refugees in Global Context: Issues and Prospects

Lecture by UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd

Palestine Refugees in Global Context: Issues and Prospects

American University of Cairo, Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, 14 December 2009

Director Dr. Ray Jureidini,
Distinguished guests, faculty and students of the CMRS and AUC:


I extend warm thanks to the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies and the American University of Cairo for hosting me this evening. At the end of this month I retire as Commissioner-General of UNRWA after more than 28 years of professional refugee service. I, therefore, very much welcome this opportunity to share some departing thoughts with distinguished scholars in the area of refugee studies in the Middle East and Africa. Many of you have grappled with contexts and issues similar to those that have defined my nearly three-decades of refugee work.

My theme this evening is Palestine Refugees in Global Context: Issues and Prospects. I chose this theme to capture reflections on the Palestine refugee condition in comparative perspective. The more than nine years I have spent with UNRWA and 19 years with UNHCR have acquainted me with a range of conflict settings, humanitarian operations and development programmes on behalf of displaced peoples. From managing the complex emergency response at the outbreak of war in the former-Yugoslavia to relocating Liberian refugees to safe areas in Sierra Leone in 1991 to the particularly joyous mission repatriating Namibian exiles after years of occupation and colonialism, I have witnessed first-hand each stage of the refugee cycle – from conflict which triggers flight to the period of displacement and exile to the return home.

Each refugee and IDP situation is marked by distinct conditions, giving rise to varied needs, international responses and historical trajectories. Palestine refugees have, in particular, been treated in international and regional circles according to an ethos of "exceptionalism". In global refugee fora, Palestine refugees are often considered to be outside the bounds of comparative inquiry or beyond the reach of universal norms. Indeed, the Palestine refugee condition is marked by several far-reaching distinctive attributes that set the Palestine refugees apart from other refugee and IDP situations in many respects. How might these differences best be understood? How do they impact state responsibilities and the role of the United Nations? What do they bode for the refugees’ future? How should we aspire to relate to them as refugee and migration scholars, practitioners and activists?

Before giving weight to the unique challenges facing Palestine refugees, let us consider that the experience of being uprooted transcends identities and borders. Forced displacement always carries with it a deep, personal pain, resulting from involuntary dislocation and alienation. At a practical level, persons fleeing persecution are cut off from traditional livelihoods and sources of income, as well as from fundamental forms of national protection, rendering them vulnerable and in need of international protection. These harsh conditions are compounded when flight takes place en masse due to generalized armed conflict, or where opportunities for quick recovery are lacking. In a majority of instances, refugees struggle to cope with powerlessness, as they attempt to reclaim a degree of normality, dignity and opportunity in their place of asylum.

These factors are ever present for Palestine refugees, who, for more than six decades, have coped with unresolved memories of flight passed down through the generations, uncertainties about their future, daily struggles for survival under conditions of occupation and human rights constraints that have precluded adequate chances for recovering losses.

In addition, Palestine refugees have withstood an added hardship of loss of patrimony and country when, in the wake of their flight in 1948, their historic homeland was transformed into a state for others. The result was the dispersal of the Palestinian nation, or el-Naqba, and the creation of the world’s largest refugee population. Palestinian refugees who fled areas over which Israel asserted sovereignty were subsequently de-nationalized, compounding their plight into a situation of stateless refugees.

Some of the refugees who fled to the West Bank and Jordan in 1948 were granted Jordanian citizenship – later revoked for Palestinian residents of the West Bank when Jordan severed its legal and administrative control over the territory in 1988. Others in Europe and the Americas were also able to gain citizenship rights. Yet, the majority of Palestine refugees in the Middle East region have remained stateless for multiple generations. The status of "stateless" puts Palestine refugees in an especially vulnerable position in the Middle East, where rights are sometimes predicated on inter-state reciprocity. Stateless Palestinian refugees are also especially vulnerable in periods of instability, as witnessed in the case of Palestinian refugees who fled from Iraq due to persecution.

The un-remedied loss of home and nation has also seared into generations of Palestinian consciousness a sense of temporary-ness and injustice. Nearly all Palestinians, whether they possess another citizenship or not, are held hostage by historical conflict, continuing violations and indeterminate futures. Refugees have held fast to the notion of return, as individuals, families and communities aspire to claim their international rights and power over their destinies. Owing to the narrative of national loss and homecoming, Palestine refugees refer to the right of return as a collective right, despite its individualized underpinnings and the trends of political compromise.

Another defining feature of the Palestine refugee situation is the unique international arrangements applicable to the refugees, underscoring the special character of the conflict and the need for dedicated structures. In 1948, the General Assembly created the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine, charging it with mediating a resolution to the conflict and achieving a solution to the refugee issue. UNRWA, established in the following year, was entrusted with attending to the needs of refugees from Mandate Palestine who remained in the ‘Near East’.

The specific and exclusive nature of UNRWA’s role was reaffirmed in 1951, when the Convention on the Status of Refugees excluded from the ambit of UNHCR’s mandate "persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations . . . protection or assistance." This clause is understood effectively to establish a demarcation of roles. UNRWA is responsible for Palestine refugees registered with the Agency or eligible to be registered in its five fields of operation, while UNHCR’s duties pertain to all refugees elsewhere, including Palestinians.

As in other refugee situations, the particular dimensions of the Palestine refugee situation should be accounted for in calibrating humanitarian responses and in refining protection strategies. However, none of these features should be assumed to exempt Palestine refugees generally from the international normative system, nor should these unique aspects become a pretext for inaction in mobilizing for their rights.

The international community, including host states and their communities, are obligated to provide basic rights and freedoms to migrants or persons seeking shelter within their borders. These obligations stem from international human rights law, as well as the global refugee protection regime. In the past three decades there has been wide ratification by Middle Eastern states of the full plethora of human rights instruments. There are few distinctions allowed in international human rights law with respect to the treatment of national citizens versus non-nationals. State parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are bound to the principle of non-discrimination and they are obligated to ensure the realization of economic and social rights for all residents. State parties to the human rights Covenants must ensure that their policies do not result in grave harm to refugee populations within their borders. These standards of dignity and fairness offer protection and give hope to all refugees in asylum countries.

In concrete terms these obligations should translate into basic legal protections against arbitrary or inhumane treatment, and allow access to social and economic opportunities. Such rights, including under regimes of temporary protection, have come to be regarded as a key to enabling refugee self-reliance and development during protracted periods of exile, a matter I shall address in more depth shortly. For host states, the provision of human rights to refugees in their countries has the potential to translate into economic benefit and improve social harmony until durable solutions are achieved.

Unfortunately the conditions under which the majority of Palestine refugees live fall short of these common requirements.

Jordan and Syria

Refugees residing in Jordan and Syria are entitled to the widest scope of human rights. Refugees live free from formal impediments to social and economic rights, with limited exceptions on property ownership in Syria and pertaining to those who have not been granted the privilege of national identification numbers in Jordan. In both countries Palestine refugees have the right to work and access to the employment market. Generally, obstacles encountered are the result of economic fluctuations, social dynamics and, increasingly, UNRWA’s growing budget deficit which is negatively impacting universal access to services for refugee communities. Refugees residing in camps – around 30% of all refugees in Syria and 25% in Jordan – typically face chronic impoverishment and overcrowded conditions, even as the communities find strength in their collective existence. Political stability in these host locations also allow refugees to live in relative safety and security away from the perils of armed conflict.


In Lebanon, refugees face a situation of restricted rights and social instability. As "foreigners" without benefit of reciprocal privileges, they are precluded from obtaining work without permission from the state authorities, and prohibited from working in the professions. Refugees are also denied social benefits and access to critical public services such as health care. Property restrictions and barriers to housing tenure create further insecurity for refugees in Lebanon.

A significant number of Palestinians are unemployed or working in the informal sector without protections offered by the formal workplace. Poor future prospects have been linked to the discouragingly high school drop-out rates in Lebanon. Severe budget constraints on UNRWA are threatening to undermine efforts to rectify the education crisis facing refugees in Lebanon, and hampering our ability to deliver adequate relief and quality health care.

Increasing incidents of factional fighting in refugee camps have further threatened Palestinian communities in Lebanon. The 2007 military confrontation in Nahr el-Bared Camp resulted in the total destruction of the camp and the homelessness of some 27,000 refugees. The start of reconstruction of the camp at its former site has raised hopes of an improved rights environment for refugees in Lebanon, as have some recent government initiatives, most notably the creation of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee and the new proposal to create a junior Minister for Palestine Refugees. The Committee engages in meaningful dialogue and consultations with the refugees and sets its sights on practical measures to improve the status of refugees and their access to social and economic rights, reversing patterns of frustration and despair amongst the refugees in Lebanon.

Occupied Palestinian Territory

In the occupied Palestinian territory the human rights of all Palestinians, refugee and non-refugee alike, are foregone under the yoke of a 40-year military occupation that shows no signs of abating. The irony is that since the advent of the Middle East Peace Process in 1991, this occupation has transformed into a complex web of movement and land and housing restrictions that have led esteemed international observers, including the Reverend Desmond Tutu, to compare the occupied territory to pre-democratic South Africa.

West Bank

In the West Bank, Palestinian population areas are cordoned off under the labels of Areas "A" and "B". Areas "C" are targeted for settlement and possible annexation. Following the construction of the illegal separation barrier inside the West Bank, Palestinian areas between the barrier and the pre-1967 Green Line were declared "closed zones" and a permit regime was enforced requiring people who have lived there for generations, even centuries, to obtain permission to continue living in their own homes. To leave or re-enter the "closed zone", Palestinians must undergo checks and searches at terminals separating Palestinians from Palestinians. Across the West Bank, Palestinian cities, towns and villages are contained behind checkpoints and road barriers, and denied access to East Jerusalem, the economic and religious center of Palestinian life. People are left in stagnant, impoverished conditions, chronically aid dependent, or economically and socially insecure, subject to the whims of political change.

Refugee communities in the West Bank, especially those residing in camps and rural areas or who are of Bedouin background, have been particularly hard hit by occupation policies. Many living in targeted areas are also at risk of secondary displacements. The village of Wallajeh is one example where a community of refugees is facing mass eviction and home demolition under threat of settlement and wall construction.


The punishing stranglehold over the borders of the Gaza Strip that has been imposed for over two years, despite international condemnation, is equally shocking—or should be. The effects of the closures on Gaza, where 1.1 million refugees reside, have reached surreal levels. The private sector has been decimated, infrastructure is near collapse and nearly 80% of the population is dependent on direct aid for the basic necessities of life. The heavy aerial and ground bombardment of the Gaza Strip last winter left extensive destruction of homes and public infrastructure that has yet to be rebuilt due to the prohibition on the entrance of construction material. The mental and physical health effects of blockade and war are increasingly evident with high levels of malnutrition, childhood stunting, deep poverty and post traumatic stress disorder amongst the Gazan population, some 750,000 of which are children.

Having been living in Gaza for the past nine years, I have been struck by the strength and the will of the people to survive against these odds. I reiterate the, until now, unheeded calls for the unconditional end of the siege so that Gazans may assume their rightful place amongst the rest of humanity.

In countries beyond UNRWA’s five fields of operation, Palestinian refugees are often treated to less than minimal human rights standards, without the safety net provided by UNRWA, and, in some instances, denied the protection of UNHCR, thereby falling out of international view.

Yet, the most compelling issue arising in the Palestine refugee case is the elusiveness of durable solutions. The refugees’ exile has spanned six decades, constituting the longest-standing refugee situation worldwide. This hard fact is commonly acknowledged, but rather than inspiring collective problem-solving, too often the issue is neglected or sidelined in international discourse and peace processes, one might think precisely because of its longevity. The Palestine refugee question is designated a ‘permanent status’ topic, for discussion at a later stage of peace talks rather than at the beginning – ignoring the fact that refugees must be one of the building blocks for peace.

The protracted nature of the Palestine refugees’ situation is a symptom of a larger phenomenon facing the Middle East region as a whole. Specifically, I note the lack of application of international law and the absence of political will, in all corners, to secure a just and sustainable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The talk of peace has yet to translate into tangible benefits for the people who are struggling to cope with the fall-out from lack of state action to address the underlying causes of displacement and continued exile.

The work left undone in the Middle East stands in stark contrast to the progress achieved by international actors and local partners in other parts of the world. Broadly viewed, normative and geo-political developments since the end of World War II and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, have contributed to a substantial decline in violent conflicts the world over. In the past two decades many peace agreements have been concluded, resolving long-standing, or deep ethnic and political, conflicts.

These agreements have been built mostly around the principles of return and property restitution for displaced persons – the internationally-preferred durable solution, with some 11 million people reportedly having voluntarily returned to their countries of origin in the post World War II period. The agreements, and the processes by which they were finalized, are not immune from criticism, nor have they all completely eliminated the crises they sought to address, but they do suggest that there is more we, as an international community, can aspire to, on behalf of Palestinians.

Distinguished colleagues and friends,

Throughout the course of recent history, which boasts substantial refugee returns, protracted refugee situations - seemingly more resistant to resolution, have come to the forefront of the international humanitarian agenda. In response, an expert dialogue series on the subject, convened by UNHCR, noted the discrepancy between the hope of return and immediate practical opportunities for its implementation, especially where displacement has coincided with demographic shifts in a county’s composition or pursuant to persistent discriminatory policies. Overcoming these barriers requires far-reaching, provocative discussions on identity, belonging and rights within nations and between peoples. Such conversations should be initiated in the Palestinian-Israeli arena to achieve a sustainable peace and level of co-existence that will allow both sides to live in prosperity and dignity, no matter the final decisions on statehood and borders. I venture to suggest that similar internal issues may be a factor in determining prospects for local integration, as well.

In crafting an international response to the protracted Palestinian refugee crisis, international actors may be guided by a commitment to three related principles. First and foremost is the enforcement of international humanitarian and human rights laws. Achieving an end to armed conflicts and human rights violations would bring about more positive conditions for negotiations and progress on the political track. In thinking through negotiation efforts since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993 by the PLO and Israel, one is reminded of the ever growing gap between the rhetoric of peace and the realities on the ground. As bi-lateral negotiation processes got underway, the system of extensive restrictions on Palestinian movement and access in the occupied Palestinian territories described earlier has been progressively implemented. The gap between the discourse of peace and the daily life of Palestinians feeds cynicism and opposition and increases chances that attempts at restarting peace talks will become bogged down by incidents of confrontation and violence.

Setting international law as a benchmark is also vital to ensure that the full scope of refugee and stateless person protection needs will be addressed. This includes tackling the situation of refugees who are outside UNRWA’s fields of operation, or who are not registered with the Agency due to lack of opportunity or need for aid.

In the interim leading up to a solution, the international community would do well to remain vigilant in ensuring that refugee rights, and the space for their realization, are preserved. One example would be to call into question actions which threaten to complicate scenarios for a future peace, such as the recent move by Israel to privatize refugee property seized by the Custodian of Absentee Property, following the refugees’ displacement from ancestral homes.

A second guiding principle for international action is refugee participation. International best practice demonstrates that sustainable solutions can be achieved only through inclusive approaches. Major constituencies must be consulted and involved in setting and implementing peace options. The inclusion of refugees, in particular, is a matter of fairness, given that they suffered the effects of dispossession and exile, but it also has strong practical value in terms of building a solution that enjoys enough support to be realized in practice. In the course of implementing an agreement it becomes equally important to empower refugees to carry out the choices available to them.

The notion of refugee participation presents a challenge to peace-makers as the mechanisms for their inclusion, and consequences thereof, remain vague. The challenge of building a viable peace through refugee inclusion, however, means ultimately addressing, rather than suppressing, refugee expectations. Refugee expectations are centered on the exercise of choice in deciding future options. Listening to them and enabling their informed decisions are the tasks at hand. From our experience in UNRWA, refugees show a great capacity for articulating their needs and thinking pragmatically about how their rights and interests may be satisfied. Rather than derailing the peace process, involving refugees will give it sustainable life.

A third guiding principle concerns the period of implementation. Perhaps as challenging as securing an agreed formula for peace is implementing the decisions, especially given the vast number of stakeholders involved. Any transitional process will require sustained political support and financing. Early infusions of support in favor of reconstruction and rehabilitation will help create the context within which refugees will render their informed choices and support them in the process of carrying out their decisions. Likewise, a precipitous withdrawing of humanitarian and development assistance would be counterproductive in this environment. Assistance will be necessary until such time as international protection ceases to be a requirement. Accordingly, the transitional process will occur over some years, giving refugees time to select options as the host states, Israel, the Palestinians and the international community complete the ground work for their safe movement and integration.

The guiding principles suggested here are not new, but they remain abstract until such time as states act in compliance with their obligations and responsibilities and re-orient their approach in favor of human rights community-based processes to allow these principles to guide peace efforts.

The role of UNRWA

This is an appropriate juncture to offer a few thoughts on the essential role of UNRWA in achieving better prospects for Palestine refugees in the Middle East. UNRWA is the largest humanitarian and human development agency in the region. Its effective presence is vital to creating the positive conditions upon which peace can be constructed.

At a minimum, UNRWA’s core social, economic and infrastructure services counter the debilitating effects of extended military conflict and weak national protection regimes, giving refugees a sense of security and protection that, were UNRWA not present, would surely result in more anguish, radicalization and deeper conflict. In times and places of relative stability, UNRWA’s primary activities equip refugees with skills and opportunities that enable them to lead more independent, prosperous lives. Central among these activities are the provision of primary education, vocational training, primary health care, job-creation programs, micro-finance and community-based social services.

UNRWA was given its human development mandate in the 1950s, pursuant to international recognition of the elusive nature of durable solutions for Palestine refugees. The Agency took up its mission with the aim of assisting refugees to become self-reliant in their countries of asylum, preceding the contemporary humanitarian trend in favor of relief to development assistance in protracted refugee situations. and indicating UNRWA’s global relevance.

Over the years, UNRWA’s mandate has evolved to meet changing refugee needs, further underscoring the Agency’s constructive capacity. Foremost amongst these evolutions is the strengthening of UNRWA’s protection function. Following the 2004 Host and Donors Conference in Geneva, and in the emergency contexts of the oPt and Lebanon, we moved to mainstream our protection activities and increase human rights advocacy in a manner consistent with our UN mandate. Today human rights based protection constitutes a key working premise of the Agency and an integral part of service delivery across all of our programs. We have also taken action to meet our international advocacy responsibilities. This includes promoting accountability and compliance with international law among state actors in the region as already discussed.

UNRWA’s proximity to the refugees also gives it a leading role in enabling refugee involvement and the refugee voice to be heard. We fulfill this role in the discharge of our regular activities geared toward realizing the human potential of the refugees through basic assistance. Initiatives intensified over the past several years have further contributed to building participatory approaches. Our school and community human rights modules aim to give youth and parents the skills and experience to pursue peaceful conflict resolution mechanisms. Our Department of Infrastructure and Camp Improvement systematically works with camp communities, as funding becomes available, to improve their space and infrastructure, based on progressive participatory methodologies that put refugees at the center of decision-making and implementation.

Following the day when a solution is achieved, UNRWA’s role will be to continue its mission temporarily to support refugee empowerment and capacity, as the region moves from a conflict to post-conflict situation, and to help carry the peace mission to fruition, including by assisting, as long as needed, the implementation of durable solutions for the refugees.

Colleagues and friends:

While the Palestinian situation, like other refugee contexts around the world, exhibits special features, it is distinctive in the rigidity and persistence of the framework of exile. Conflict over the course of more than six decades has done more than dispossess Palestinians of a land which for centuries had borne their name. It has given the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation a self-perpetuating character, spawning encumbrances to justice for Palestinians and obstacles to just solutions to the plight of Palestine refugees.

We must avoid dwelling on the uniqueness of Palestine refugees as a dominant feature, or as an end in itself. Doing so locks us into a self-fulfilling vortex of despair and obstructs our view of the paths along which challenges can be addressed. Rather, we must highlight the common matrix of rights and obligations at the centre of which stands the individual refugee whose inherent dignity and worth must be promoted and defended - not at the whim of State choices based on benevolence, foreign policy or security considerations – but as a matter of obligation under international law. And we must insist that Palestine refugees – like refugees elsewhere – be allowed to benefit from the full spectrum of international protection, including practical steps to prepare for a durable solution to their plight.

My call is for us to abandon our habit of offering Palestinians half measures – partial moves rather than comprehensive approaches, interim arrangements instead of permanent commitments and placebos in place of genuine cures for the ailments we, as an international community, have ourselves imposed by our acts, omissions or acquiescence. In the result, the wretchedness of the Palestinian condition belittles us, giving the lie to our proclamations of allegiance to the UN values of justice and dignity for all.

As Israelis, Palestinians and the international community all share a stake in a better future for the people of Palestine, finding the courage to give effect to the demands of international law is in everyone’s interest. We all shall—dare I say, will -- reap the fruits of peace and security on the day the occupation is ended, and when a viable, peaceful State of Palestine takes its place among the community of nations and a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees is realized.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Catholic nun prays in Gaza's Der Latin church after the end of Christmas mass on Christmas Eve December 24, 2009. Less than 100 Gazans gathered in the church to take part in the Christmas celebrations. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (GAZA - Tags: RELIGION POLITICS SOCIETY)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A bird perches on tangled metal bars from buildings destroyed during the three-week offensive Israel launched last year, in the northern Gaza Strip on Christmas Eve December 24, 2009. December 27 marks one year since the start of a three-week offensive Israel launched in Gaza during which more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (GAZA - Tags: ANNIVERSARY CIVIL UNREST POLITICS SOCIETY ANIMALS

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My letter to the Guardian RE The separation wall, I would get rid of the Israeli separation wall, not just for Christmas, but for all our sakes

RE: The separation wall, I would get rid of the Israeli separation wall, not just for Christmas, but for all our sakes

Dear Editor,

Austen Ivereigh did an excellent job explaining how exactly Israel's monstrous wall strangles Bethlehem.... thank you for publishing his essay.

Anne Selden Annab

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Palestinian schoolchildren visit the Grotto, where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, in the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 22, 2009, ahead of Christmas. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside (WEST BANK - Tags: RELIGION)

A Palestinian nun places a statue in a nativity scene to prepare for Christmas, in a Roman Catholic church in the northern West Bank village of Al-Zababedah near Jenin city, Tuesday Dec. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, delivers his annual Christmas message in Jerusalem's Old City, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009. Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Mesezhnikov said he is expecting about 70,000 tourists to head to the town of Jesus' birthplace for Christmas. Israeli and Palestinian officials have worked closely in recent years to coordinate the movement of pilgrims. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My letter to the LATimes RE Steps to create an Israel-Palestine by Jonathan Kuttab

Band members play at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009. According to Israeli police, nine activists were detained when they took part in an unauthorized march calling for a declaration naming Jerusalem as the cultural capital of the Arab world. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

RE: Steps to create an Israel-Palestine by Jonathan Kuttab, co-founder of Al Haq and the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners.,0,3289579.story

Dear Editor,

An American perspective: One state or two, Israel and Palestine (or Israel-Palestine) should be respecting basic human rights and investing in the rule of fair and just laws- not segregation and institutionalized bigotry... and certainly not religious extremism.

One state or two, the very real plight of the Palestinians has been a crime against all of humanity- and so is terrorism.

One state or two, Israel and Palestine (or Israel-Palestine) need to be serious about making peace for all the people- regardless of supposed race or religion... and one state or two all the world needs to be fully respecting the Palestinian refugees' inalienable right to return to live in peace as clearly spelled out by UN Resolution 194 from 1948 (and reaffirmed over and over and over again through out the years.) And I think we also need to be doing all we can to help the Palestinian refugees leave if they want- to resettle far away from the source of so much misery and suffering. To be able to start anew still connected to their roots, their extended families and their cherished homeland, but able to earn a decent living and create a better future wherever they might want to go.

Anne Selden Annab
homemaker & poet

Friday, December 18, 2009

For love of land

Al-Ahram Weekly Online 17 - 23 December 2009
Issue No. 977
Reader's corner

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

For love of land

Sir-- Ramzy Baroud quotes US President Roosevelt in 'A people's history of Thanksgiving' (3-9 December, Al-Ahram Weekly): "The European settlers moved into an uninhabited waste... the land is really owned by no one... The settler ousts no one from the land. The truth is, the Indians never had any real title to the soil."

Roosevelt was right. Native tribes (I am a citizen of the Choctaw Nation) did not own land. They considered it impossible to own land. Anyone could farm any land that was not being used by someone else. There was plenty of unused land for the European settlers to occupy and farm without displacing any natives because North America was sparsely populated by native tribes. The more peaceful tribes, such as the Choctaw, welcomed white settlers who obeyed the law and willingly let them marry Choctaws. However, tribes did mark territory for hunting and jealously guarded it against other tribes. In fact, native tribes regularly massacred each other over claims to hunting grounds or simply the desire to loot another tribe. Each tribe considered all other tribes to be animals worthy of slaughter like buffalo. They only united against the European Americans in the early 20th century.

The US government treated native peoples terribly and is guilty of many crimes against them, not the least of which is murder. But the analogy between Native Americans and Palestinians is false. Native Americans had no concept of property in land and there was a lot of empty land with room for European settlers.

Roger McKinney

'Sadly still needed' UNWRA's Karen Abu Zayd talks to Al-Ahram's Dina Ezzat about a lifetime's commitment to fighting injustice

'Sadly still needed'

As Karen Abu Zayd approaches the end of her mandate as UNRWA commissioner-general, she talks to Dina Ezzat about a lifetime's commitment to fighting injustice

Click to view caption
Karen Abu Zayd

Later this month, Karen Abu Zayd will end her mandate as commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which looks after the destiny of over four million Palestinian refugees.

In Cairo this week as part of an emergency appeal for financial assistance for UNRWA's operations, Abu Zayd launched the appeal from the headquarters of the Arab League, where the organisation's secretary-general, Amr Moussa, paid tribute to what he called Abu Zayd's "remarkable" efforts to speak up for the rights of Palestinian refugees.

For Abu Zayd, this last appeal, to be followed by others launched by her successor, was "a last warning call" on behalf of the refugees.

The appeal asked for a little over $323 million to cater for the immediate needs of refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank. These basic needs include food, healthcare and the elimination of environmental hazards.

UNRWA, Abu Zayd said, faces serious financial constraints that are undermining its performance at an exceptionally challenging time, with Palestinian refugees, especially in Gaza, suffering from the heavy-handed closures that Israel has imposed on the increasingly impoverished Strip.

"There must be a relaxation of the closures," Abu Zayd said.

As part of her work with UNRWA, Abu Zayd has attended to the needs of Palestinian refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as in neighbouring Arab countries including Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly in UNRWA's humbly furnished office in Garden City in Cairo, Abu Zayd recalled her early months as UNRWA commissioner-general with affection, remembering that she arrived in Rafah in the wake of an Israeli attack that had demolished Palestinian houses.

"I will always remember a lady who called me from amidst the rubble of her house to show what the Israeli raids had done," Abu Zayd said.

For Abu Zayd, these were among the hardest moments of her career -- having to bear witness to the suffering of refugees deprived of the little they had in the first place.

Yet, "somehow my best moments as UNRWA commissioner-general were also wonderful moments," Abu Zayd said, adding that it was moments such as these when a refugee still had the will to describe her personal tragedy in detail that showed "the real strength of the Palestinian people" living under occupation in refugee camps.

It was also at this time, and with the outbreak of the second Intifada, that Abu Zayd took up her mandate, succeeding another prominent UNRWA commissioner-general, Peter Hansen.

Abu Zayd looked back on years marked by hard work, mediation between the Palestinians and the Israeli government, and making contacts with governments and others worldwide in order to generate funds to meet the needs of refugees who "have been suffering for six decades with dignity as a result of the failure to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

During her years as head of UNRWA, Abu Zayd was never short on carefully worded criticism of Israeli violations of international law towards the Palestinian refugees.

Most recently, she spoke up against the Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses in occupied East Jerusalem. Standing before one of the targeted houses in Sheikh Jarrah, Abu Zayd said that "to date four of the 28 families have lost their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, affecting over 55 people, including 20 children."

"At present, a further eight families are under direct threat of forced eviction, having been served with orders to vacate their homes, potentially affecting as many as another 120 people."

She added that in all such incidents Israeli "settlers have taken over, with the protection and assistance of the Israeli authorities. But the numbers alone do not convey the human suffering and trauma that have been the hallmark of these forced evictions."

Nevertheless, Abu Zayd's words have all too often fallen on deaf ears in the international community. She has never been short on criticism of the role that this has played in prolonging the suffering of millions of Palestinian refugees since the Nakba in 1948.

The international community, she said, has not done enough to find a fair settlement to the conflict, including resolving the issue of the Palestinian refugees in line with the relevant UN resolutions that stipulate repatriation or compensation.

She also blamed the international community for failing to put pressure on the Israeli government to allow reconstruction materials into Gaza, in order to carry out desperately needed reconstruction of the Strip after damage sustained during the three-week Israeli aggression.

Abu Zayd is sceptical about the chances of the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip being able to return to anything like normal life any time soon, given the Israeli blockade, the insufficient humanitarian assistance, and what she says, using carefully chosen words, are the "unfair conditions imposed by the Quartet that leave room for question marks over compatibility with international law."

Abu Zayd criticises accusations of terrorism made against those living in Gaza to indicate opposition to Hamas's control of the Strip since June 2007. "Unfortunately, once you call someone a 'terrorist,' you can do anything without much observation of international law," she said.

Compounding the suffering of Gaza, Abu Zayd says carefully, is the fact that the Rafah border linking Gaza to Egypt "has not always been a good border." However, she credits the Egyptian government with the "periodical opening of the Rafah border," adding that the Egyptian authorities "have been especially good this year."

Yet, she does not hide her concern at the possible impact of "the wall" that she says the Egyptian authorities are building on the border with Gaza, "part underground and part above ground," in combination with sensitive detectors to block the construction of the tunnels that the Palestinians use to smuggle "basic goods, including food and medicine," into the besieged Strip.

Abu Zayd said that she shared her concerns with the Egyptian officials she met during her four-day visit to Cairo. "They were reassuring and said it was only going to be a wall across 10 kilometres" of the little-over 14 kilometre border between Egypt and Gaza.

For Abu Zayd, the wall could reduce the flow of commodities into Gaza. Even if some of the tunnels are built very deep, they could still be detected and shut down. This, she said, would be "problematic" because if the world wants to end smuggling into Gaza then it has to find a way to get Israel to end the blockade and allow access for desperately needed humanitarian assistance.

Abu Zayd does not throw the blame on the Egyptian authorities. "They also have their concerns, and it is fair to say that they cannot be expected to carry the responsibilities" that Israel should be honouring in any case as the occupying power.

"There is a role for the international community to play there as well," Abu Zayd stressed.

Brought up in Chicago in the US and married to a Sudanese man, Abu Zayd is now contemplating her next project after a lifetime catering to refugees in different parts of the world. She was on the verge of tears as she spoke about her days in the occupied Palestinian territories and the Palestinians. For her, the territories "were home" and the Palestinians family.

Today, Abu Zayd is moving on, saddened in many ways that she will no longer be there to reach out to those who need assistance and saddened, too, that "after 60 years UNRWA is still needed."

Abu Zayd has been honoured by many organisations in recognition of the work she has done in the face of apparently endless political and financial challenges.

For Abu Zayd, however, the most touching tribute has come in the waving, frail hands of elderly Palestinian ladies and the bright smiles of Palestinian children who are third-generation refugees.

Does she feel fulfilled at the end of her career in humanitarian assistance?

"A colleague from UNRWA sent me a farewell e-mail, and he told me, 'you have failed with distinction.' I think this is exactly right," Abu Zayd said with a sad smile.

Arab diplomats who have met Abu Zayd agree that she has done everything she possibly could do and more to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian refugees, always speaking out bravely for their rights.

However, they also agree that the diligent endeavours and heartfelt commitment of this dedicated lady alone could never be enough to relieve the pain that Israel is mercilessly inflicting on the Palestinian people.