EXPERT PANEL EXAMINES ROLES OF UNITED NATIONS SYSTEM IN ALLEVIATING HARDSHIPS IN PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
VIENNA, 20 February (UN Information Service) -- Expert panelists at the United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People this afternoon expressed concern over the dramatic deterioration in economic and social conditions in the Palestinian territories resulting from Israeli imposed border closures and the restriction of the flow of commodities into and out of the territories. There had been an almost total loss of the flow of labour in and out of Israel and the movement of humanitarian personnel and commodities had been severely restricted.
The two-day seminar in Vienna, sponsored by Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, heard presentations in a panel on the role of the United Nations system: assessments and efforts to alleviate hardships.
Most speakers, pointing to the substantial damage to the infrastructure, private property and agricultural land, stressed the need for immediate emergency assistance. Other speakers expressed grave concern that the fiscal crisis threatened the existence of the Palestinian Authority and there was a risk of greater violence.
The representative of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process said the Palestinian Authority was experiencing a fiscal loss of about $11 million per working day. Since the beginning of the crisis, there had been a 50 per cent rise in the number of people living below the poverty line, increasing the poverty rate from 21 to 32 per cent. The average unemployment rate was 38 per cent, as compared to 11 per cent in the first nine months of 2000. In practical, psychological and social terms, hundreds of people had seen their future bulldozed into rubble before their eyes.
He warned that security could not be built on uncertainty and peace could not be built on anger. The Special Coordinator had met with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, stressing that the Israeli closure policy was counter-productive. It must be rescinded.
The representative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)/Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People warned that the situation was extremely dire. While agency personnel could move around, the Israelis prevented them from getting to places where they were needed. He stated that that the international community needed to act now or it might be to late.
The representative of the Islamic Development Bank made a presentation in a panel on assistance by Arab and Islamic States and intergovernmental organizations of the Palestinian people.
Statements were also made by representatives of the League of Arab States, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The seminar will meet again tomorrow morning to hear a panel presentation on efforts by international donors and other sectors of the international community to alleviate the economic hardships of the Palestinian people.
SAID KAMAL, Assistant Secretary-General, Head of Palestine Affairs Department of the League of Arab States, said that information on financial assistance by Arab States to the Palestinians could be obtained from the relevant organizations and embassies in Vienna. Assistance agreed on for the promotion of the peace process was a moral commitment. The League of Arab States, which traditionally concentrated on political aspects, had turned its attention to economic development and reconstruction in the Palestinian territories since September 1994. A department had been set up to undertake development, construction and assistance to the Palestinian people. In addition, two funds had been established.
Arab leaders had decided to take measures to help the Palestinian economy and to help it to survive in the face of the Israeli restrictive policies, he said. That would be achieved through allowing Palestinian goods and products to enter the Arab countries and exempting them from customs and other duties, in addition to accrediting Palestinian certificates of origin and discussing ways of eliminating the Israeli measures that impeded the free flow of Palestinian goods and products. The Arab ministers of finance met in November in Cairo to establish a mechanism for the two funds. A number of Arab countries had declared their contributions and several States had transferred the total or part of their contribution to the Islamic Bank for Development in Jeddah. He detailed the declarations and payments of contributions of the Arab States. He also pointed out there had been significant contributions from the Arab private sector.
He said the Islamic Bank had proposed a number of projects and programmes to the Administrative Committee of the two funds. In response to a question, he said the money was under the umbrella of the Arab League but it did not control its disbursal. He noted that there was a difference between the mechanisms of disbursal of the Islamic Bank and the Arab Bank.
Panel II -- The role of the United Nations System: Assessments
FRANCIS OKELO, representative of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said the Coordinator’s mandate was to monitor support for and to act as the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative to the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It was also mandated to marshal resources in the region in support of the peace process. The Coordinator had worked relentlessly to help the parties to end the violence and to continue the negotiations. He had encouraged the parties to reach agreement on at least an outline. There was a new Government in Israel and its policies were still to be spelled out and tested. He continued to hope that the parties would resume the peace process.
In the last four years the Special Coordinator had reported every six months on the state of the Palestinian economy, he said. In the last four months, attention had been focused on the social and economic impact of the violence and restrictions. The last report had just been issued and the situation was grim. The economy had losses of over $900 million. The total estimated loss in the last four months arising from movement restrictions was estimated at 50 per cent of the gross domestic product and 75 per cent of wages. The total loss was estimated at 20 per cent of the projected gross domestic product for the year 2000, assuming no border closures. That equaled a loss of about $11 million per working day. In addition, there had been considerable damage to public buildings and infrastructure, private property and agricultural land, costs for caring for the more than 11,000 injured Palestinians and in public revenue losses due to the closures.
He went on to say that there were other losses that could not be quantified. The individual consequences of the loss of life were incalculable. Since the beginning of the crisis, there had been a 50 per cent increase in the number of people living below the poverty line, increasing the poverty rate from 21 to 32 per cent. In times when the closures were slightly eased, there had been a decline in unemployment, but currently the average unemployment rate was 38 per cent as compared to 11 per cent in the first nine months of 2000. Due to the high dependency ratio in the Palestinian territory, unemployment now directly affected the incomes of over 900,000 people. In practical, psychological and social terms, that meant that hundreds of people had seen their future bulldozed into rubble before their eyes. Hundreds of barefoot children had to rummage through garbage cans. Palestinian women had to beg.
He said that when the crisis began, a task force of United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and the donor community was brought together to address the emergency medical needs of the Palestinians. They had raised $12 million through the task force. Another area of assistance was the coordination of donor assistance to Palestine, bringing together donors, United Nations agencies and other interested parties.
He warned that security could not be built on uncertainty and peace could not be built on anger. The Special Coordinator had met with Palestinian and Israeli leaders. He had stressed that the Israeli closure policy was counter-productive. It must be rescinded. If that were done it would be a positive contribution to the peace process. The crisis was real. It threatened the existence of the Palestinian Authority. A special commission was going around the world to try and impress upon world leaders that the help must be given to the Palestinian Authority. The situation in the West Bank and Gaza was volatile. There was a risk of greater violence, which could only produce a lose-lose situation.
D.S. WIJEWARDANE, representative of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) indicated that as of 16 February, 335 Palestinians have died since September. Of those killed, an estimated 42 per cent were UNRWA registered refugees. He said two issues affected UNRWA: its financial situation; and the restrictions placed in its ability to move its personnel -- that is, the issue of access. UNRWA was looked on as the organ through which the United Nations discharged part of its responsibility with regard to the Palestinian question. Its strength was that it was a pragmatic oriented agency. It provided assistance to refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Its health care programme remained focused on primary health care. It supported those Palestinian refugees who suffered the most and to promote self-reliance. Over time it had added other programmes, including the income general programme. Assistance was delivered through some 900 facilities, 420 schools and over 120 medical clinics. It employed 120,000 to carry out its humanitarian work. The agency’s strength was its flexibility and ability to adjust to changing situations. It was financed almost entirely from voluntary contributions. In the West Bank, demand for drugs and supplies had dramatically increased. Unfortunately, the agency was seriously under-funded. The population was increasing by 5 per cent a year.
He said that since the beginning of October all entrance points to the Gaza and the West Bank had been closed. The main economic impact was the loss of income and the restriction of the flow of commodities into and out of the territories. There had been an almost total loss of the flow of labour in and out of Israel. Of the day labour in Israel, a large percentage was refugees. UNRWA was attempting to assist the most vulnerable. It had launched a flash appeal for $4.8 million. That target was fully met. In November another appeal was launched for a much larger sum. He hoped it would meet with the same positive response. Israeli measures implemented as a result of the disturbances in September had placed extreme restrictive measures on the agency. The Israelis authorities had decreed that all commercial trucks and trailers must cross through a specific crossing point. UNRWA had to pay charges to cross and comply with difficult procedures. The Israelis had impeded the agency’s operations, making it worse off than it had ever been. As a consequence of lengthy delays, the agency’s cargo built up at the port accumulating in mounting daily charges. The security procedures also held up the flow of aid to the Palestinian people. The financial situation and the restrictions on movement, UNRWA continued to be a major factor of stability in the area.
FRANZ-JOSEF HOMANN-HERIMBERG, representative of the Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said coordinated planning and response was a critical element of OCHA’s activities. Where there was a clear humanitarian need for which there was no existing agency, an ad hoc group would be established. One such group concerned the creation of emergency job creation in the Palestinian territory. OCHA had initially focused on emergency planning and the creation of a database, since an effective humanitarian response required an enhanced capacity to analyse the problem, so as to identify what was needed and how to deliver it.
Another aspect of OCHA was to target and monitor humanitarian and socio-economic conditions, he said. Examples included the impact of the emergency on such things as varied as households and municipal budgets, the scope and effect of non-official development assistance and the impact of permanently reduced Palestinian flows of labour to Israel. The locales to be targeted initially would be those most affected by the current crisis. Information and analysis would enrich the data collection for the database.
The movement of humanitarian personnel and commodities had been severely restricted, he said. The West Bank had represented a particularly complex issue. There was a need for monitoring and a more accurate collection of information on that issue. A more coordinated approach to addressing the situation in the territories would help in responding to the current crisis and building a stable platform for the future.
NADER ATTA, representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)/Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People (PAPP) said that UNDP/PAPP was not the usual UNDP office. It had implemented 300 projects over a 21-year span and had a multi-sectoral focus. It had a quick delivery system in normal and emergency situations and currently had distributed over 90 per cent of the funds received. It was trusted by donor countries as an implementing agency. Japan and Norway were its largest donors. The operating requirements of the unit were flexible and it could adapt its rules and regulations according to the situation on the ground. It was fully independent within the framework of authority delegated to it by Headquarters.
Referring to the present crisis situation in the Palestinian territory, he said the blockades and closures were such that "you cannot move". During a slide presentation, he illustrated Israeli checkpoints that blocked traffic and prevented goods from being transported. UNDP/PAPP was maintaining its current activities despite the constraints. It was developing emergency response programmes on health, education, emergency employment generation and agricultural employment.
He went on to say that UNDP had utilized approximately $800 million of its own core resources for emergency support to the health sector; emergency employment generation; and agricultural employment generation. UNDP was talking with potential donors. The situation was extremely dire. While agency personnel could move around, the Israelis prevented them from getting to places where they were needed. He warned that the international community needed to act now or it might be too late.
SALAM FAYYAD, representative of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), said it had been envisaged early on that the Palestinian Authority would not have sufficient resources to carry out the establishment of its government. Governments had transferred funds to support the budget of the Palestinian Authority, but the Authority was still in a difficult fiscal situation. As a consequence of the situation on the ground today, nearly half of the people had lost their major source of income. During a typical closure month, there could be a loss of $45 million. The Government of Israel had transferred money in November and December but had made no transfer of owed revenues to the Authority since 20 December 2000.
Assuming that the Palestinian Authority would receive the money, he said, it would still be in great difficulty, as its revenue-generating capacity had substantially declined. The monthly wage bill of the Authority was $55 million. Even if the Palestinian Authority could collect money due from Israel, it could not pay its wages. If the situation were to normalize tomorrow, the Palestinian Authority would need about $40 million a month for the next six months. Budgetary assistance was not normally popular with the donor community, but it was impossible for the Palestinian Authority to make the money on its own. It was critical to address the fiscal crisis.
Another area to be addressed was the need for emergency job creation, he said. Implementation of development projects was impossible. Perhaps donors could reorient their commitments to relieve the fiscal situation. The Palestinian Authority could repay those funds when the situation normalized, when it could generate $90 million a month on its own.
Panel III – Assistance by Arab and Islamic States and Intergovernmental
WALID ABDELWAHAB, representative of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), said it took only simple arithmetic to prove the extent of the crisis being faced by the Palestinian people. On the economic side, he said, the commitment of the 12 donor countries had reached $693 million. The IDB
Funds Management Committee was composed of representatives of the contributing countries. After projects were prepared they were presented to the Committee for approval.
By 19 March, the date of the next meeting of the Committee, the IDB will have processed approximately $90 million within 100 days from the establishment of the funds. Without losing the focus on long-term sustainable development, the projects/programs approved and to be approved by the Funds Management Committee included mostly labour-intensive projects with quick implementation mechanism through the adoption of flexible/relaxed procurement and disbursement procedures. On the fiscal side, the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority by the IDB from the resources of the two Funds required modifying the mandate given to the IDB by the Arab Summit.
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