Mr. Gunness is the spokesperson and director of advocacy and strategic communications at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), a position he has held for nearly nine years, notably during the fighting in Gaza in 2014 and 2008-9. Before assuming his current position, Mr. Gunness read philosophy and theology at Oxford University, subsequently joining the BBC, where he worked for 23 years, as a producer, foreign correspondent and anchor on BBC World TV and flagship current-affairs programs, winning awards for his journalism. He joined the UN political office in Jerusalem in 2006 and moved to UNRWA in 2007. In an exclusive interview, Sara Roy, senior research scholar and associate at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, talked to him about UNRWA, the largest and oldest UN humanitarian agency in the Middle East, and the increasingly complex environments in which it works: Syria, Gaza and the West Bank.
SARA ROY: In your long experience working in the West Bank and Gaza, what issues or problems stand out as the most misunderstood?
CHRIS GUNNESS: One of the most misunderstood issues or institutions in the Middle East is perhaps UNRWA itself, our 65-year-old mandate and our huge emergency and human-development programs, which impact nearly every aspect of the lives of our recipient communities. To give your readers an idea of our sheer scale, there are over five million Palestine refugees registered with us, to whom we offer educational, health, relief and social services. Moreover our overwhelming significance — developmental primarily, but also in terms of human security — in the context of the current Middle East, is often underplayed and indeed misunderstood. With governments in Europe and North America now struggling to deal with the seemingly inexorable rise of extremism, UNRWA's emergency and human-development work — the human-dignity response — with some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged communities in the region, has never been more vital or worthy of support.
Every day we educate half a million Palestine refugee students in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), encompassing the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and including East Jerusalem, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Each day, UNRWA health staff see 34,000 patients; we administer food and cash assistance to 1.8 million vulnerable people; we teach a special human-rights curriculum to children in all our schools regionwide. UNRWA runs 11 vocational training centers sending thousands of well-qualified graduates onto the job market each year. We extend small-business loans and other financial services worth at least $24 million to 33,000 microfinance clients, targeting women and youth, the loans being tailored to enterprises without high risk and adverse consequences in volatile situations. We assist more than 15,000 Palestine refugees with disabilities and we promote environmentally sustainable neighborhoods for over 1.3 million refugees in 58 Palestine refugee camps.
UNRWA's work is increasingly central to the evolving UN development agenda in the Middle East, embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals. Our added value is increasingly taken as a given among major donors, and rightly so.
The other misunderstood and overlooked issue is the context in which we work, particularly the OPT, not least the occupation itself, which will soon be half a century old. It is the military occupation with its associated policies and restrictions that to a large degree defines the outlook for Palestinian communities in the OPT, who see it as a root cause, yet it is often air-brushed out of certain news and some political discourse. Here I would like to quote the perceptive words of our deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, who, while condemning the recent spate of stabbings in Israel and the OPT, said:
Let us be clear. There is no justification whatsoever for murder. That should not stop us from asking why the situation has deteriorated. This crisis would not have erupted, I suggest, if the Palestinian people had a perspective of hope towards a viable Palestinian state; if they had an economy that provides jobs and opportunities; if they had more control over their security and the legal and administrative processes that define their daily existence — in short, if the Palestinians did not still live under a stifling and humiliating occupation that has lasted almost half a century. They see, instead, the growth of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which undermines the very possibility of a two-state solution and poses growing security risks to the Palestinian population. They see the emergence of a parallel de facto settler community with better infrastructure, better services and better security than in Palestinian populated areas. With every passing day their dream of real statehood is becoming more elusive.
Q: You have spent a great deal of time in Gaza. What was Gaza like the last time you were there?
GUNNESS: The juxtaposition of hopelessness and despair, contrasted with the transformational potential of Gazan society, has never been so palpable. That gap, between daily reality and Gaza's undeniable potential, is for me the essence of Gaza's current tragedy. It explains many of the endemic frustrations. Closing that opportunity gap in creative and innovative ways is central to UNRWA's work and the wider international response, in my view. There is so much need and vulnerability, on the one hand, yet so much pent up creativity that could change all that, on the other.
Look at the situation of women. One heart-breaking statistic is that 16.3 percent of women in Gaza are widows, 790 of whom lost their husbands in the 2014 fighting. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 299 women, 16 of whom were pregnant, and 197 girls were killed in the 2014 conflict. Two thousand women and hundreds of girls were injured. Approximately 24,300 girls and 22,900 women whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged remain displaced. Eight percent of households in Gaza are headed by women. The situation facing women and girls in Gaza is devastating, yet in the face of this and perhaps even because of it, Gaza's women have refused to surrender to despair. It is women who are doing some of the most transformational work. Statistics on this are inconclusive, but a recent survey suggested that 23 percent of Gaza's start-up founders are women and that 38 percent of companies in Gaza have at least one female founder; 13 percent have female-only founding teams. This would put some G-7 countries to shame.
Every day there's another story of innovation coming out of Gaza, another story that illustrates the sheer indomitable dignity of Gaza's humanity under this seemingly never-ending blockade. Carbon-zero technology, school-based democracy and the use of innovative apps to support the teaching of blind and visually impaired children in our schools are three examples among many. It's a side of Gaza that is not portrayed enough. UNRWA knows this, as we are part of the innovation engine room in Gaza. We are increasingly bringing in green technology. We have introduced school councils for students, creating violence-free spaces through school-based democracy. We are supporting youth projects for jobs and livelihoods involving cutting-edge technology. And we don't shy away from addressing culturally sensitive issues like gender-based violence.
Yet, the underlying economic trends spell further disaster; unemployment stemming largely from the Israeli-imposed blockade is at an all-time high. The World Bank recently found it was among the highest in the world, particularly youth unemployment. UNCTAD, in a September 2015 report, placed food insecurity in Gaza at ٧٢ percent, based on figures from the Office of the Quartet Representative.
Since the Oslo Accords, the international community has effectively said to the Palestinians, "Don't espouse violence; peace will bring prosperity and political freedom in the form of self-determination," yet little of this has been delivered. My fear is that, despite the entrepreneurialism, a whole generation, the post-Oslo generation, is being lost in Gaza, the West Bank and beyond. But UNRWA refuses to give in to despair, and our work has a new significance in the current climate.
Q: What is that significance, in Gaza and beyond — in Syria, for example? What do you see as UNRWA's most critical role at present, and how does it differ from its more traditional role?
GUNNESS: In Gaza, UNRWA serves about 71 percent of the population — some 1.3 million out of 1.8 million people. With unemployment rates over 40 percent and food insecurity soaring, it is clear that our work is providing an increasingly desperate population with the promise at least of stability. Our primary health service — child immunization, for example — has become a life saver for many. Our education programs offer hope amid hopelessness and despair. Our human-rights education to some quarter million Palestine refugee children in Gaza alone teaches respect for the rights of others and a nonviolent vision for problem solving and conflict resolution.
Our work in Syria is much neglected by the media; yet, our role there is critical, offering emergency assistance and human development amid one of the most pitiless conflicts of our age. For the 450,000 Palestine refugees estimated to have remained in Syria, daily life is a bleak and constant struggle, with over 95 percent relying on UNRWA to meet their basic needs. Unemployment, lost assets and shattered livelihoods have resulted in deeply entrenched poverty. This, combined with exposure to violence and trauma, has profoundly affected the civilian population we serve. Since 2011, life expectancy in Syria has dropped from 76 to 56 years, just one measure of the shocking impact of the armed conflict whose consequences our colleagues in Syria work to redress with a courage that is unusual in the humanitarian system. Rarely is this courage sufficiently recognized and honored: 15 of our staff in Syria have been killed, and 30 are missing. I pay tribute to each and every one of them, humanitarian workers who remain on the ground offering services and hope, that rarest of commodities right now in the Middle East.
In September 2015, despite an unprecedented agency-wide financial crisis over the summer, UNRWA opened its schools in Syria in time for the new academic year, which is now in progress, with 43,000 children in attendance. In close collaboration with UNICEF, UNRWA implements a comprehensive Education in Emergencies program, which includes promoting the use of materials for independent learning, complemented by online interactive programs and support classes. In 2014-15, UNRWA provided a range of supplementary classes for all grades prior to the end-of-year exams, and approximately 10,000 students attended summer classes in Damascus, Hama, Homs, Latakia and Aleppo. The 2014-15 end-of-year exams resulted in a pass rate of 94.8 percent for students from grades one to eight and 81.5 percent for ninth-grade students. Each one of those students has an inherent dignity and a destiny that must be respected, nurtured and cherished. It is a huge responsibility and one to which we remain committed, even in the most terrible of circumstances.
Similarly, the UNRWA health department in Syria has made significant progress despite ongoing operational challenges. In 2015, the agency's 15 health centers and 11 health points — temporary makeshift clinics in conflict-affected areas — conducted several hundred thousand consultations. UNRWA in Syria also provides support to Palestine refugees to enable them to meet the rising costs of health care. In 2015, we subsidized hospital treatment for over 6,000 Palestine refugees by up to 95 percent, and we currently maintain agreements with 14 hospitals in Aleppo, Damascus, Deraa, Homs, Hama and Latakia. UNRWA also subsidizes the purchase of costly drugs unavailable at its own health centers and health points and continues to expand its prosthetics program. A total of 111 refugees received prosthetic limbs and related support; a further 1,929 received devices such as wheelchairs, hearing aids and walkers. It sounds basic; it is, nonetheless, transformative.
Despite the adverse economic context in Syria, UNRWA's microfinance program continues to offer a diverse range of financial products designed to meet specific needs. The program currently operates four offices in Damascus, Swayda, Tartous and Latakia. The Bastat (informal enterprise) loan has been tailored to allow clients to seize opportunities presented by street trading and other small enterprises. Syria may be a challenge, but it is a challenge to which my colleagues there are constantly seeking new ways to rise. The significance of this extraordinarily brave work by our Syria staff in the most brutal conflict is clear. We remain true to our human-development vision, challenged as that vision is right now.
And let me be clear: in the short term, it costs the donor community seven times more to support the Palestine refugee communities we serve if they migrate to Europe rather than funding UNRWA to provide assistance to them in the Middle East, which is where they would prefer to be.
Can you think of another humanitarian agency that has attained this level of assistance with this large a footprint in this complex and volatile environment? At a time when radical militant groups are in full recruitment mode, UNRWA is there in the thick of it, showing time and again that there is another narrative: a human-development narrative that goes beyond the emergency, a narrative of hope amid one of the darkest conflicts of our age, a narrative around sustainability and innovation. That is our significance, and that is why we are worthy of support, in Syria and beyond.
Speaking of the beyond, let me say a few things about our work in Lebanon. On the one hand, we are supporting more than 40,000 Palestine refugees who came there from Syria over the last couple of years. In addition to supporting them with emergency assistance, it should be seen as an extraordinary achievement that UNRWA has managed to include them in the mainstream of service provision such as our schools and health clinics. It should be noted that Palestine refugees from Syria in Lebanon are particularly vulnerable, not least as many of them are hosted by fellow Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, many of whom live in dire circumstances themselves, facing the challenges of ghetto-like camps with very limited livelihood and employment opportunities. UNRWA's provision of essential education, health, infrastructure improvement, relief and services to some 270,000 Palestine refugees already in Lebanon is considered by many stakeholders, including the Lebanese government, as an important contribution to preventing an escalation of social unrest and reducing the risk that these people will either embark on perilous journeys to Europe or fall into the arms of recruiters for extremist actors. UNRWA is not only providing its core services to them but increasingly working in partnership with other UN agencies such as UNICEF and national and Palestinian civil-society organizations to facilitate access to employment and livelihood opportunities, as well as to advocate on their behalf with key decision makers and opinion leaders for more dignified lives.
Q: During the summer 2014 war on Gaza, you were an important voice detailing the impact of the hostilities on the Palestine refugee community. Are there experiences from that war that had a particular impact on you that you would be willing to share?
GUNNESS: There is one individual case that stands out in my mind above all others, that of eight-year-old Mohammed. An Israeli shell hit his family's house and he and three siblings were taken to hospital. When Mohammed woke from his coma, he was completely blind. We got him into a good eye hospital in the Jordanian capital, Amman, but when his mother went with him to leave Gaza through the Erez Crossing to take him to hospital, she was refused permission to go to Amman through Israel, although passage through Erez is technically permitted for Palestinian medical and humanitarian cases. Freshly blinded and traumatized, little Mohammed was forced to make that journey without his mother. Ten days later, Mohammed's father was killed when the mosque in which he was praying was hit. So Mohammed found himself deprived of both his sight and his father in just ten days.
I tweeted this story along with Mohammed's excellent school report card, and within hours a man called Winston Chen, the creator of a ground-breaking app for the visually impaired, had offered his technology to Mohammed and other blind and visually impaired children in Gaza. Voice Dream Reader, as the app is called, will "read" any digital material "imported" onto a digital device. All the user needs to learn is where to place a finger and click; a voice in Arabic will read the text. I had the idea of importing onto iPads all of the textbooks UNRWA uses for all subjects, all grades. So starting this year, over 200 blind and visually impaired children in UNRWA schools in Gaza, Mohammed included, will be given an iPad with all the textbooks they need in readable form. The Vision Project, as it is known, has given hundreds of children the promise of an education and a life of dignity. The icing on the cake is that the project is solar powered: each night the iPads are recharged from solar panels. The Vision Project, which grew out of Mohammed's tragedy, is a small but illustrative example of how UNRWA can be part of the solution, restoring dignity where it has been so sadly denied.
In your question, you may also be referring to the incident during the 2014 Gaza conflict when, after an Al Jazeera interview, I broke down. The camera kept rolling and, without asking for my consent, the video of me sobbing was broadcast and went viral. If this incident served to demonstrate to international audiences that the outrage of the United Nations was visceral and authentic, then I have no regrets. We really had reached a breaking point. Some 90 of our schools were overrun with 300,000 displaced people. Despite multiple notifications to the Israeli army of the coordinates of our schools, which were full of civilians seeking shelter, some of them were hit directly or indirectly, causing the loss of 44 civilian lives and injuries to 227 Palestinians. If my tears focused international audiences on the nearly 1,500 civilians who were killed, including over 500 children, I have no regrets. And for the record, on the Israeli side, 66 soldiers were killed, as were a security coordinator and four civilians including one child.
Q: In August 2012, the United Nations issued a report arguing that if present trends continued, Gaza would not be a livable place by 2020. A similar report was recently issued by UNCTAD. Is that now inevitable?
GUNNESS: Nothing is inevitable if the current dynamics change, which they can. The prognosis can be reversed very rapidly if the underlying causes of the conflict are addressed. An example is the blockade, which, for the international community, constitutes collective punishment, illegal under international law. But the fundamentals have not been effectively addressed in the three years since the UN "2020" report to which you refer; and Gaza has seen two subsequent wars. The blockade continues largely unchanged, though we welcome the reported Israeli decision to take gravel off the list of dual-use materials. That said, wood has not been removed from the list; imagine trying to rebuild your home and your life without easy access to wood!
I also want to mention the firing of rockets — which, as a matter of public record, we condemned from inside Gaza during the war. This has continued, as have air strikes by Israel. Much of the strip lies in ruins; for many, Gaza already is an unlivable place. To give one example, but a fundamental one: water. For the last two years, the Palestinian Water Authority's "Water Resources Status Report on Gaza" has said that, considering the combined concentrations of both chloride and nitrate, 96 percent of the water does not meet World Health Organization standards; hence the aquifer is already unusable. This is partly a result of the blockade, a deliberate man-made policy that is also driving trends in other sectors, such as housing, health and education, in the same downward direction. The question is whether the political will exists to change that.
Q: I'll ask later about the political will to confront the underlying causes, but I want to hear more about the state of Gaza and the impact of the war of 2014. Where do things stand with regard to reconstruction?
GUNNESS: UNRWA engineers have confirmed that over 141,000 Palestine refugee houses were impacted during the 2014 conflict: over 9,000 were totally destroyed, over 9,000 had severe or major damage, and over 123,000 sustained minor damage. UNRWA continues to disburse funding for reconstruction and repair as it becomes available, but our $720 million reconstruction program is underfunded by some $473 million. The agency has distributed over $142 million to Palestine refugee families, so reconstruction under what is essentially a self-help system is ongoing. But due to a lack of funding, as of December 17, 2015, over 59,900 refugee families have not received any payments to undertake minor repair work on damaged homes. Furthermore, over 14,000 families have not received any payments to repair their severely damaged or destroyed homes. At the time of writing, just one destroyed home has been rebuilt. All this is astonishing, given that $5.4 billion was pledged at the Cairo conference after the war. The lack of reconstruction for totally destroyed homes was due in part to initial problems with the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, or GRM — more on that in a minute.
Aside from the funding issues, the blockade of Gaza is a major problem. Israel allows civilian goods into Gaza but restricts "dual-use" materials. As mentioned, in early October 2015, it was reported that gravel would no longer be listed as dual-use. However, 19 items remain on the dual-use list, including some of the most critical items such as cement and wood. According to the Israeli NGO Gisha, from the end of the war to the end of September 2015, two million tons of construction materials entered Gaza through the Kerem Shalom Crossing between Israel and the Strip, about 9 percent of the total need, estimated at about 23 million tons. So if the current blockade regime continues, it will be years before Gaza is rebuilt, even if the funds were found. Make no mistake; the human impact of the present policy of long-term partial reconstruction to which Gaza seems consigned is a recipe for continued instability and the prolonged threat of violence.
The situation at the international border between Gaza and Egypt is also highly restrictive. I am referring to the Egyptian-controlled Rafah Crossing, which is designed for people, not goods. During the first half of 2013, about 40,000 people transited at Rafah in both directions each month. Yet from January to September last year, a monthly average of 2,479 entrances and exits through Rafah were recorded, deepening the despair among Gazans. Many if not most of them see the Rafah Crossing as their only connection to the world.
Q: What are some other problems regarding reconstruction?
GUNNESS: The challenges are complex. I have already explained the consequences of underfunding and the blockade. Another main challenge UNRWA anticipates with regard to reconstruction is the lengthy and complex process for selected families to prove title to or lawful possession of the land, submit their drawings and obtain the necessary licenses to start reconstruction, including obtaining a permit from the Palestinian Ministry of Public Works and Housing. This takes time as well as financial and human resources, including legal advice. To help meet reconstruction-related challenges, UNRWA is actively engaged in coordination efforts with other UN agencies and international NGOs to ensure an efficient and effective response via a new body called the UN Gaza Reconstruction and Recovery Group, chaired by UNRWA and UNDP. The Group works in support of efforts led by the National Consensus Government in the area of reconstruction and recovery for Gaza.
Q: You mentioned earlier the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), which has come under a great deal of criticism as an instrument designed foremost to insure Israeli security, not Gaza's economic recovery. The United Nations has also come under criticism for being assigned the role of implementing the GRM. How do you respond?
GUNNESS: While welcoming the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism — a "temporary" agreement between the Government of Palestine and the Government of Israel brokered by the United Nations in September 2014 — we at UNRWA and indeed the UN political office, UNSCO, have said it is not a substitute for a full lifting of the blockade. The GRM enables the Government of Palestine to lead the reconstruction, by the Gaza private sector, of damaged and destroyed housing and infrastructure. It allows for private-sector imports and hence for self-help shelter repair and reconstruction, which was not possible under the previous system.
UNRWA has been very clear in criticizing the GRM for its initial slowness. But recently there was news that an agreement between the parties has been reached on a new "stream" within the GRM, the Residential Stream. Initially the GRM was composed of three streams: one for the repair of damaged properties, a second for large-scale public and private-sector works, and a third for UN-led projects and works. For its self-help shelter-repair program, UNRWA relies on the "Shelter Repair Stream," which allows families to access dual-use materials for the repair of homes with minor, major and severe damage. Extensive negotiations for a fourth stream, a simplified "Residential Stream" to allow for the construction of totally destroyed houses, has now been approved. This means that families can begin the reconstruction of their homes once they are cleared though the system, and UNRWA can begin disbursing the installments. With funds secured from the German government, UNRWA is now able to support 200 refugee families to rebuild their totally destroyed homes. There has been much delay, but we hope these changes in the GRM will allow the reconstruction of totally destroyed homes to begin in earnest.
Q: What other aspects of the 2014 war remain of concern to the United Nations and will fester dangerously if unaddressed?
GUNNESS: The restrictions on meaningful levels of exports are destroying economically much of what the war left standing. The ban on most exports, if held in place, will prevent economic recovery, and that is likely to lead to further conflict. Moreover, at a time of rising extremism, it is depriving a whole generation in Gaza of hope and a belief in a dignified, prosperous and secure future.
Over 50 percent of Gaza's population is below 18 years of age, representing enormous potential for the Gazan economy. At the same time, the economy — crippled by years of military escalations and campaigns, blockade and de-development — is unable to absorb and utilize this human capital. Youth unemployment stood at almost 62 percent in the second quarter of 2015. Female participation in the labor market in Gaza, seen over a longer perspective, has traditionally been low. Opportunities for women, especially younger women, have further diminished as a result of the generally high unemployment rate: female youth unemployment reached over 81 percent in mid-2015. Despite the bleak outlook and numerous obstacles, however, the youth of Gaza continue to show remarkable resilience.
Q: What is UNRWA doing specifically on youth and women?
GUNNESS: UNRWA continues to provide technical and vocational training tailored to the needs of future employers through its two training centers, in Khan Younis and in Gaza City. Recognizing the potential of Gaza's young women and men, UNRWA is implementing concrete initiatives aimed at improving the employability of IT (information technology) graduates, in particular, and of young women.
IT is the signature industry of the twenty-first century, and we recognize this, even under blockade. Because 75 percent of all Gaza IT graduates are unemployed, we support the "G-Gateway" program, designed to provide training for IT graduates in the workplace, while helping IT companies expand the services they offer. While working with the G-Gateway for approximately 12 months, graduates attend regular structured skills training to develop an employable CV or resume. Under each G-Gateway project, we identify and work with Gaza IT firms interested in subcontracting and mainstreaming the initiative once established. The firms gain commercial experience and expand their services, and the project associates are able to move to private-sector employment. In October 2015, the Gateway employed 22 IT graduates and eight senior graduates in three project teams. Current projects supply UNRWA with database solutions for health, relief and education. Their impact has been real. For example, we created a tablet-based poverty-assessment software system that has considerably sped up the delivery and efficiency of our poverty-targeted services such as food assistance. During the Gateway's three-year project phase, we hope to establish the Gateway as a hub for IT outsourcing solutions abroad, with private enterprise as well as NGOs, UNRWA and other UN entities as clients.
We established a Young Women Leaders Program to close the skills gap and ensure that women are developing competencies demanded by employers; among other things, it provides advanced IT training; advanced English courses; management, administration, leadership and life-skills training; and self-development coaching. To date, the program has provided leadership training to nearly 4,500 female graduates, of whom over 1,700 were provided with a three-month work placement — important, but clearly insufficient. As a result of the training and work experience, over 900 of the graduates have been able to secure further employment. However, the need is considerable and expanding, and requires constant effort.
Q: Despite these sorts of initiatives by organizations like UNRWA, there is a lack of political will to address the blockade, as the human and political cost of inaction deepens. How can that be changed?
GUNNESS: We are not a political organization but a humanitarian agency daily witnessing the consequences of political inaction, and we speak about those consequences. We have said repeatedly that the time for humanitarian action alone is long gone. We need robust political action to address the underlying causes of conflict such as the blockade. Even small steps could have a huge impact in Gaza right now, both psychologically to an embattled population and also economically. Lifting the restrictive ban on exports is a good example. Addressing the profound sense of injustice and isolation that many people in Gaza feel should also be a priority.
Without this, there is a serious risk that conflict will erupt again, potentially exposing millions of civilians in Israel to indiscriminate rocket attacks and the people of Gaza to the wholesale denial of dignity and fatal impacts of military escalation that they have seen too often. Moreover, another Gaza war at a time of rising regional militarism would likely put the plight of Palestinians in the regional and international spotlight, with potentially even greater resonance on the Arab street and beyond than ever before.
Q: Given this truly dangerous political vacuum and such dim prospects for reconstruction and economic progress, what is UNRWA's most vital role in Gaza?
GUNNESS: I have already spoken about some of our initiatives towards vulnerable groups such as youth, women and those with disabilities. Beyond that, every day UNRWA delivers to a quarter of a million children in Gaza primary education, including a specially tailored human-rights curriculum. We run 21 primary health centers, bringing medical care to many of the 1.3 million Palestine refugees in Gaza. We also provide clinic and laboratory services, along with personalized maternal health and family planning, in all our health centers. In order to support children affected by war and trauma, we established special-needs clinics in several of our health centers. UNRWA placed psychosocial counselors in schools to support children dealing with a range of problems, given that at least 300,000 children are in need of immediate psychological intervention according to UNICEF. Our role in providing a sense of normalcy and opportunity, in a situation that is anything but normal, is considerable.
Q: A few months ago, UNRWA published a health study showing that, for the first time in 53 years, Gaza's infant and neonatal mortality rates were rising. Can you give us some background to this study and the reasons for this stunning, if not unprecedented, reversal?
GUNNESS: For decades, UNRWA has conducted surveys of infant mortality rates in Gaza. These surveys recorded a decline from 127 per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 20.2 in 2008. In our latest survey, we used the same methodology as in previous ones. All mothers who had had more than one child were asked if their preceding child was alive or dead. We surveyed 3,128 mothers from August to October 2013: infant mortality that year was 22.4 per 1,000 live births compared with 20.2 in 2008. When the report was released, the director of UNRWA's Health Department, Dr. Akihiro Seita, said, "It is hard to know the exact causes behind the increase in both neonatal and infant mortality rates, but I fear it is part of a wider trend. We are very concerned about the impact of the long-term blockade on health services and facilities, supplies of medicines and bringing equipment into Gaza."
Q: UNRWA is going through the worst financial crisis in its history. Why is that, and what is at stake?
GUNNESS: We are emerging, we hope, from an unprecedented financial crisis. Last summer, faced with a deficit of $101 million, we were nearly forced to delay the start of the school year. We literally did not have the money in the bank to pay some 22,000 teaching staff. So at a time when militant groups were — and still are — in full recruitment mode, there might have been half a million children on the streets of the Middle East rather than in UN-run schools. Thanks to an unprecedented resource-mobilization effort and the generous support of our donors, we narrowly avoided this, but the resulting shock resonated ubiquitously, from the students in our communities for whom education is a passport to self-worth, to the political and military echelons in donor capitals that were all too aware of the security implications. They saw the consequences for refugee flows into Europe.
One of the takeaways of the dramatic events of last summer is the growing recognition of the huge contribution towards stability that UNRWA makes. And we are making continued institutional efforts to be leaner and more effective. Thanks to a root-and-branch efficiency initiative that we started in the latter part of last year, UNRWA began 2016 with a deficit reduced from $135 to $80 million. Following a review, we decided to discontinue 85 percent of international personnel working with the agency on short-term contracts. Recruitment of staff was frozen with the exception of those essential to front-line services. The upper limit on the number of students per classroom was raised from 40 to 50. And an exceptional voluntary separation arrangement was introduced in July and August 2015 to enable eligible staff interested in leaving the agency to do so, bringing down our workforce numbers even further.
I believe our major donors understand the pain involved in these reforms. With the region in turmoil and with ongoing efforts to address challenges such as the continuing refugee flows out of the region, they acknowledge UNRWA's cost effectiveness and the need for the agency to operate on stable financial footing.
Q: During my last visit to Gaza in May 2014, just before the conflict, I was struck by the inability of the refugee community to tolerate even the most minor and benign change in the delivery of services, such as changing the day or time of food distributions. There was a sense of fragility among people that was alarming. Imagine a scenario where UNRWA were forced to dramatically reduce and possibly eliminate its services in Gaza due to a lack of funding. What do you think would happen?
GUNNESS: The ending or dramatic reduction of UNRWA services in Gaza would be catastrophic. However, to be clear, UNRWA is determined to deal with its structural funding issues and ensure that this will not happen. We remain determined to implement the mandate handed down by the General Assembly. But here is a snapshot of what we do in Gaza alone. UNRWA has over 12,500 staff working in over 200 installations, delivering services to over a million people. We run 257 schools with about a quarter million students; in addition, we have two vocational and technical training centers, three microfinance offices, 16 relief and social-service offices, 12 food-distribution centers, six rehabilitation centers and seven women's-program centers, among other services. We feed about 900,000 people. Just imagine what would be the consequences for the people of Gaza — and beyond, for the stability of the region — if these services were reduced or terminated. What if there were about a million starving people on the doorstep of Israel or a quarter million kids on the streets of a de-developed Gaza Strip and not in UN schools? All of our major donors agree that this is an unacceptable scenario.
Q: UNRWA is often criticized for perpetuating the refugee crisis. This argument maintains that UNRWA is not neutral and that, if the refugees were handed over to UNHCR, the refugee problem would soon be solved. What do you say to this?
GUNNESS: Our neutrality is the family silver; we could simply not have operated for so long amid so many conflicts if we had not safeguarded it. But the notion that "UNHCR does nothing but resettle refugees and that if the Palestinian refugees were handed over to them, they would be resettled and the conflict would end," is nothing but wishful thinking, divorced from international law and refugee best practices. To begin with, UNHCR does register the children of refugees where there is an unresolved political situation. So the children of UNHCR-registered refugees in protracted refugee situations — Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the 1980s or Cambodian refugees in Thailand — are registered as refugees under the principle of family unity. By the way, UNHCR's preferred solution is repatriation; in their long experience, they have found that this generally produces the most stable outcomes.
UNRWA and UNHCR are agencies established by the UN General Assembly in 1949 that share a similar concern: refugees should receive adequate assistance and protection until their refugee situation is resolved. While UNHCR has a broad mandate for refugee situations globally, UNRWA is mandated to provide essential services and protection to Palestine refugees pending a just and durable solution of their plight. There are a lot of commonalities between the two agencies, including with regard to how protracted refugee situations are dealt with, but also some noteworthy differences, such as the promotion of specific solutions.
The division of labor between the two agencies originates in UNHCR's Statute and the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention provides that, to the extent protection or assistance is available from a UN agency other than UNHCR, such as UNRWA, Palestine refugees are excluded from its application. However, to avoid a protection gap and in recognition that the Question of Palestine refugees constitute a refugee situation in itself, it also provides that Palestine refugees are ipso facto entitled to the benefits of the 1951 convention, should such protection or assistance no longer be available to them without their situation's being definitively resolved in accordance with General Assembly resolutions.
This means that, where Palestine refugees are able to avail themselves of protection or assistance provided by UNRWA, they will not be able to rely on the 1951 convention and fall outside UNHCR's mandate. This is the case for Palestine refugees who are within what we call UNRWA's area of operation (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). However, UNHCR has a mandate over Palestine refugees who are not able to avail themselves of protection or assistance by UNRWA. Generally, this applies to Palestine refugees who are outside UNRWA´s area of operation and depends on the specific circumstances in each case. Regardless of their status under the 1951 convention and whether they fall under UNRWA's or UNHCR's mandate, Palestine refugees enjoy basic human-rights guarantees. These include protection from non-refoulement [forcible return to the land they fled] and the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
What perpetuates the refugee crisis is obviously not UNRWA, an agency that deals with its consequences, but the failure of the political parties to resolve it. It is as absurd as to suggest that Oxfam perpetuates global poverty. According to all accepted paradigms, the Palestine refugee issue must be resolved in the context of a political agreement between the parties to the conflict.
As the United Nations, we believe this should be in accordance with UN resolutions and international law and in consultation with the refugees themselves, as in all refugee situations. If UNRWA vanished now, the refugees would remain individual human beings with inherent rights that would need to be respected. UNRWA would like nothing more than to cease existing, but the refugees would have to be granted a just and durable solution for such an eventuality to occur. Until such a resolution is achieved and as mandated by the General Assembly, we will continue to deliver services to the best of our ability.
Q: You once spoke of Gaza as a template for, or symbol of, Palestinian refugees everywhere. Would you elaborate on this?
GUNNESS: Gaza has become emblematic of the Palestinian experience in the Middle East context. What is Gaza? It's a Palestinian community with extreme restrictions of movement, racked by violence, conflict and the denial of rights; it's a community increasingly divorced from any meaningful political framework, deprived of justice, where a lack of compliance with international law seems to be the norm rather than the exception, and where a whole generation is being robbed of the belief in a peaceful, just, dignified, prosperous and stable future. Increasingly people would leave it for a life elsewhere if they were given the chance. What is Yarmouk, the Palestine refugee camp in Damascus? It is a besieged Palestinian community deprived of rights and dignity, where the lack of a political solution has robbed people of hope and from which many have fled to Europe. The same might be said for Palestine refugees in the camps in Lebanon and certain parts of the West Bank such as Biddu or Walaje, where their proximity to Israel's settlements (all of them illegal under international law) has resulted in their physical, social and economic isolation.
It is the growing sense of long-term despair so familiar in Gaza that increasingly characterizes the Palestinian experience around the Middle East and is beginning to define Palestinian identity itself. This gathering sense of foreboding among Palestinians ought to be troubling for us all. But, as I have said, determined human-development work is our default mode. It is part of our institutional DNA. For UNRWA, however desperate the current situation may seem, it is a call to humanitarian action, as defined by our mandate.
Q: What is the principal message you would like our readers to remember?
GUNNESS: Amid rising levels of vulnerability and marginalization among some of the most disadvantaged communities in the Middle East, and amid rising extremism and refugee flows out of the region, a fully funded and cost-effective UNRWA, set on a firm long-term financial basis and delivering a broad range of emergency and human-development services to Palestine refugees in their home region, must be part of the international response to events in the Middle East. Without it, the consequences could be disastrous.
But after the near disaster of last year's financial crisis, the donor community is determined to avoid this doomsday scenario. The human capital we have built up in over six decades of operation, particularly in education, cannot be allowed to erode. Moreover, I believe an energized and cost-effective UNRWA, fully committed to its mandated vision, is and will be an integral element of achieving an overall solution, however long that solution is in coming.
To be clear, the resolution of the Palestine refugee question will be the result of concerted political action; and though UNRWA, as a humanitarian actor, has no role in reaching that solution, we will continue to advocate for a just and durable resolution for the refugees we serve, based on UN resolutions and international law. Such a resolution would be a major milestone on the long road to peace in the Middle East. It would hold out to millions of dispossessed and marginalized people the promise of dignity and prosperity for themselves and future generations that they have been denied for far too long.
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