In early November, shortly after Israel had pulled out of Gaza, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met with UNRWA’s new commissioner-general, Karen AbuZayd. Shalom suggested, during that meeting, that it might be time for UNRWA to begin to pull back in Gaza and allow the Palestinian Authority to supply education, health, employment, and other social services to the refugees in Gaza.

This represented a significant Israeli policy shift, as it was the first time an Israeli official had suggested that another entity assume even some of UNRWA’s responsibilities. Shalom’s reasoning-as later elaborated upon by Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev-was that the PA was doing battle with Hamas in Gaza and this would strengthen the PA position. Currently only Hamas and UNRWA provide humanitarian assistance there, and if the PA began offering such assistance, presumably its standing among the people would be enhanced. (Of course, Shalom did not address the PA’s capacity to handle this, which is another story: what he did was make a policy statement.)

AbuZayd, however, was having none of it. And what we’ve seen in the weeks since her meeting with Shalom is quite the reverse of what the foreign minister had suggested.

On November 16, there was a meeting of UNRWA’s hosts and donors, held in Jordan. Kofi Anan, UN Secretary-General, was not present, but his message to the gathering was read by AbuZayd. International support provided to the refugees via UNRWA, said Anan, has given them the “hope that their plight is not forgotten.” Now, as there is movement towards a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, “the work of UNRWA and what it represents to the four generations of Palestine refugees is indispensable.” Thus Anan appealed to the supporters “not only to continue your support to UNRWA, but to increase it…increased funding would give a clear signal to the Palestine refugee community that their needs remain at the forefront of the international community’s concerns. That would make a significant contribution to stability and hope in the region (emphasis added)…”

If there is anything significant about this statement, it is its audacity. The head of the UN was declaring publicly that there was no intention of cutting back on UNRWA’s role in Gaza: a pointed policy statement. But it was not enough for him to say that UNRWA was needed to provide basic services for the refugees until their problems were resolved, he went further in tying UNRWA’S role to stability and hope in the region. Cut back, he was telling the donors, and you will be responsible for further destabilizing the region. Astonishing when one considers that UNRWA’s policy’s vis-à-vis the refugees has been the key factor in denying them hope and a cause of unrest in the region.

A day later, the PA got into the act when PA Foreign Minister Nasser al-Qedwa made a statement about UNRWA’s mandate, which is from the UN General Assembly and could be changed only by that body. The PA, he said, will cooperate with UNRWA on projects and services needed in the refugee camps, but only on the condition that these projects and services fall within the domain of a developmental plan implemented by UNRWA.

Thus did the PA publicly deny any intention of taking over in Gaza and recognize unequivocally that UNRWA was in charge there with regard to the refugees. This was consistent with what has been the position of the PA all along: it defines itself as no more than a “special host” for the refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, as their final destination is Israel within the Green Line.

So much for Shalom’s policy statement…

In the days and weeks following, an initiative was set in place by AbuZayd to expand the functioning of UNRWA. In line with this, she announced a budget increase of roughly 30% over the next two years. UNRWA’s budget line in 2005 for regular expenses was $340 million, with $47 for special projects. AbuZayd is now looking for close to $1 billion over the next two years, in order to increase services, with an additional $100 million to be allocated to emergency services.

In the course of promoting this initiative, she has focused on the intention of UNRWA to build housing in Gaza. Of particular note here is the plan to build 600 housing units in Khan Yunis, which is adjacent to the former Gush Katif. The plan involves expansion of Khan Yunis into territory formerly occupied by Gush Katif.

Of course, no mention is made in any of the publicity regarding this, of the fact that “land grabbers”-armed families and gangs-have illegally co-opted large swaths of land in the region for themselves, making construction problematic until this situation is remedied.

In order to promote her budget increases, AbuZayd has been traveling to Arab nations-something that was not the routine practice of her predecessors. She has now secured commitments beyond what had been forthcoming in the past -the Arab states having typically donated small sums or nothing; the sums currently committed by some of the oil-rich nations, however, are still considerably less than what is provided by the U.S. annually (in excess of $300 million). There has been mention of a pledge of $20 from Saudi Arabia. The United Arab Emirates, for its part, has pledged $13 million for that building project in Khan Yunis; the new area will be called Khalifa City, after Sheikh Kalifa of the UAE.

On November 26th, lest there be any lingering doubt about the matter, AbuZayd stated for the record again that UNRWA would continue to function in the Palestinian territories until a permanent solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was reached…with no change in the UNRWA mandate.

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