28 April 2006

United Nations Seminar on Assistance to Palestinian People Concludes

(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

CAIRO, 27 April -- United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Economic Affairs Officer Mahmoud ElKhafif said conflict, political instability, an elusive sovereignty and a policy of asymmetric containment had hampered the Palestinian Authority's ability to ensure any governance, much less a corruption-free, best practice model.

Speaking at the last panel discussion of the United Nations Cairo Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People, he said humanitarian relief and budget support were inadequate to reduce poverty and economic vulnerability under current conditions. Sustained economic recovery required either dismantling the politics of asymmetric containment or dealing with it as an external constraint in the short term while working towards its eventual elimination.

Speakers this morning focused on United Nations and international donor programmes of assistance. Several panellists pointed out that the real cause of the economic crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory was political. Emergency humanitarian aid was a short-term solution and humanitarian agencies could not take over the functions of the Government.

Many speakers listed the limitation of movement of people and goods caused by closures, the separation wall, withholding by Israel of Palestinian tax refunds and major restrictions on banking activities as precipitating the current conditions. The decision of many in the donor community to withhold aid from the Palestinian Authority served to exacerbate the situation.

Statements were made by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Director of Operations in the West Bank, Anders Fange; Head of the Research and Analysis Unit of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Francine Pickup; Media and Communication Officer of OCHA, Juliettte Touma; UNCTAD Economic Affairs Officer, Mahmoud ElKhafif; Head of the West Bank and Gaza Office of the World Health Organization (WHO), Ambrogio Manenti; Senior Coordination Officer of the United Nations of the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Rana Zaquot; and the Senior Regional Information Officer for the Regional Bureau for the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, of the World Food Programme (WFP), Khaled Mansour.

In the closing session this afternoon, closing statements were made by the Assistant Minister for Multilateral Relations of Egypt, Naela Gabr; the representative of Palestine, Riyad Mansour; and the Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Paul Badji.

The representatives of China, Yemen and Senegal also spoke. Another statement was made by the representative of the African Union.

Plenary II The United Nations and the international donor community's support of the Palestinian people:  Programmes of assistance of the United Nations System; the need for intensified donor assistance; and coordination of international assistance


ANDERS FANGE, Director of Operations in the West Bank, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said the solution to the economic crisis was there for anyone who wanted to see it. Soon after his arrival, Special Quartet Envoy James Wolfenson had concluded that the recipe to end the downturn was to end the closure regime and liberate the economy. Former Director of the World Bank Nigel Roberts argued that the Palestinian economy could be freed up without threatening the security of the State of Israel. When Mr. Wolfenson was there, there had been great optimism. With democracy came pessimism. With the decision of big donors to stop funding the Palestinian Authority, the crisis was already being felt in Gaza, the main victim of the closure regime. In the West Bank, the injection funds to pay March salaries had happened. All the shop owners were aware that economy was on a downturn. Half of the Palestinian Authority employees belonged to police and security forces. In recent months, unruly groups and military brigades had been employed to calm them down and give them a salary. If they were not paid, they would return to former activities.

The Israeli army was tightening the closure regime in the West Bank and Gaza, he said. The word Bantustan had been designated by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to describe the isolation of Palestinian communities. Closures had the potential of impeding any humanitarian effort. In the Occupied Territory, many people were employed by the Government, thus, ensuring that the financial collapse of the state would be felt more. The United Nations was neither politically or logistically able to substitute for government departments or for the State.

The coming disaster was man-made, a result of deliberate political decisions that strangled the economy and created social, economic and humanitarian consequences, he said. Humanitarian disasters were often difficult to predict, but in this one we had all the figures and could predict with certainty the economic consequences. It was already clear. With the new crisis, out of 300,000 Palestinian households, as many as 65,000 depended on salaries from the Palestinian Authority. They would need emergency assistance in the event of non-payment of salary. The real consequences of the crisis would be clear two three months after the cessation of salaries. There would be considerable demand for job creation which would mainly be in infrastructure. However, the Israelis might not allow the importation of the needed raw materials. The health centres would see increased demand. If Palestinian Authority schools ceased functioning, about 45 per cent of the students would come to Agency schools. The Agency was already faced with establishing priorities and making cuts. The Agency's budgetary needs had also been underestimated. It was not just a case of no light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel itself was getting dark. The UNRWA was no alternative to negotiations leading to a peace process.

FRANCINE PICKUP, Head, Research and Analyst Unit, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Jerusalem, said there were OCHA specialists who worked in the humanitarian field and were present in all areas of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. They surveyed and reported on the humanitarian situation. In cooperation with other agencies, they had consolidated an appeal for assistance. The humanitarian crisis had resulted from the difficulty of access to basic services. The separation wall and the bypass roads that Palestinians could not use also limited movement. Those restrictions were imposed for the security of Israel and to protect Israeli civilians.

With the accompaniment of slide projections, she showed maps that illustrated conditions in the Territories, with markers indicating settlements, barriers and closures. The Agency's presence in the field made it easier to collect such information. One frequent way of setting up closure points was through the use of sand bags or garbage bags. A new method to block the road was through the use of a longer fence on roads in Hebron, Nablus, and Jerusalem and along the West Bank to separate the movement of Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians could not use the roads without authorization. Ditches were another device used to block access. Although the Israeli disengagement from the West Bank had taken place last August, it had been followed by a 34 per cent increase in closures. There were 129 types of closures.

She said the results of her Agency's analyses demonstrated that the time it took a civilian to get from one point to another doubled after the intifada. Persons could move freely in their own areas, but had a hard time moving from one area to another.

JULIETTE TOUMA, Media and Communications Officer, Advocacy Unit, OCHA, said the Israelis had intensified movement restrictions and had increased internal closures, military incursions, and rocket attacks. The tighter restriction on the movement of goods in an out of Gaza had resulted in acute shortages. The budget crisis caused by Israel's withholding of $60 million and along with the lack of aid accounted for 35 per cent of the Palestinian Authority budget. Poverty would extend to 67 per cent of the population in 2006.

She said unemployment would almost double this year, largely due to people who would lose their jobs with the Palestinian Authority. People with stable jobs in the Palestinian Authority supported one in four of the population. Security forces were already taking to the streets and demanding their salaries. Street crime and kidnapping would be on the increase. Investment would be stifled in such an uncertain climate. People who were employed by the Palestinian Authority in schools, private health clinics and a whole host of other services would be the first not to show up if their salaries were not paid.

The United Nations could intervene with food aid and medical support, but it would only slow the downward spiral, not stop it. From a development perspective, humanitarian aid was a step backwards. The underlying causes of the crisis remained the same. The key solution was to improve access in the West Bank and to regain access to the Israeli market. If the Palestinian Authority funding was withheld, ordinary people would suffer. Health education and civil services were best met by the Government. It was imperative to work with the Palestinian Authority. Impartiality was a core principle and OCHA provided services according to need. Its ability to deliver additional services would be limited if the situation became worse.

MAHMOUD ELKHAFIF, First Economic Affairs Officer, Assistance to the Palestinian People Unit of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said that in 2005, the Palestinian economy reached the levels it attained in 1999. Now the donors had ceased their contributions and the Palestinian Authority had less than $30 million to pay its bills. The UNCTAD was concerned by the loss of the Palestinian Government's ability to carry out its function. He feared that growth now under threat would not be able to subsist. The Palestinian people, regardless of their political affiliation, would not be able to manage the economy. Conflict, political instability, an elusive sovereignty and a policy of asymmetric containment had hampered the Authority's ability to ensure any governance, much less a corruption-free, best practice model. Building modern transparent public institutions under constant pressure of confrontation, crisis management and the threat of bankruptcy had weakened the quality of the Authority's governance. Recovery and reconstruction had had to proceed under an ambitious reform agenda and systematic dependence on foreign aid. The Authority continued to reform public institutions intended for a transitional, self-government phase instead of responding to the imperative of forming appropriate national institutions of governance.

He said the Palestinian Authority needed goals, policies and institutions for an independent, democratic and modern State. To reduce poverty, Palestinian efforts should be rooted in a development-driven approach to trade rather than a trade-driven approach to development. The greatest developmental constraints facing the Palestinian people were related to the fact that they did not have a State within which a meaningful reform could be managed. The economy's developmental potential had been dependent on fiscal, trade and monetary policies and labour mobility criteria regulated by Israel. Despite progress in reform, economic decline had been persistent since 2000.

He went on to say that while humanitarian relief and budget support must continue as a major part of aid delivery, such instruments were inadequate to reduce poverty and economic vulnerability in a context of asymmetric containment. A long-term relief strategy of non-distorting aid was needed. Sustained economic recovery required either dismantling the politics of asymmetric containment or pursuing a strategy to deal with it as an external constraint in the short term while working towards its eventual elimination. That required going beyond the conventional economic policy wisdom and tailoring the development process to the economy's present features and institutional set-up. Such an approach should be based on a participatory mechanism and concrete policies for poverty reduction with programmes that linked all types of aid to long-term development objectives and a State-formation agenda. It must be identified as a means to a national Palestinian socio-economic vision towards the establishment of a democratic contiguous and economically viable State of Palestine.

Dr. AMBROGIO MANENTI, Head of West Bank and Gaza Office, Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, World Health Organization (WHO), said a recently finalized survey of the Palestinian quality of life indicated that more than one in four Palestinians rated their lives and their health as poor. Four in 10 did not enjoy their daily activities and were bored or fed up. One in four reported they were suffering psychological stress due to the death or imprisonment of a relative, having to cross Israeli checkpoints to get to school or work, living close to an Israeli settlement and having no access to leisure activities. Forty-two per cent did not consider their physical environment healthy. Four in five delayed paying bills. Nearly half feared losing their home, their land or being uprooted and displaced. Eight in 10 were affected by the ongoing conflict and Israeli military confrontations. The life of the Palestinians was miserable from the physical, psychological and financial view points.

Since the elections, the picture had been bleaker, he said. With the suspension of donor aid and Israeli closures, the Ministry of Health would be less capable of developing health services. Many workers would not be paid and there would be an increased drain of professionals to non-governmental organizations. Also, there would be shortage of drugs and medical supplies and no training or capacity building programmes. Efficiency and quality would be compromised. Immunization for 65,000 children would be affected. Sixty thousand pregnant women would not have access to hospitals. Public hospitals would have to drastically decrease their services. Almost 1 million people who went to the Ministry of Health for emergency services would be seriously impacted.

He said the crisis had already begun. Three months ago the Ministry had made an appeal for non-salary items such as essential drugs and two days ago the Ministry had called for a donor meeting to consider the situation. United Nations agencies must advocate to resolve the precarious conditions of the Palestinian people. They must work to identify donors and explore options to keep public services going. The short-term and long-term view must be kept in focus. The agencies should monitor the situation and keep the international community informed. They could act also as a coordinator, although it was difficult to put a Palestinian government official and the representative of donors in the same room.

RANA ZAKHOUT, Senior Coordination Officer, United Nations Office of the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said that since the second intifada the Palestinian economy had experienced a period of grave deterioration. Today, there was a rapid and acute deterioration in the economic situation especially since the Hamas victory in the recent elections. The reduction in revenues was due to the moratorium on donor contributions because the new Government did not subscribe to the principles of the Road Map. Some countries said they would continue aid, but it had not been forthcoming. Withholding tax revenues funds would also affect the economy as well as the ability of the Palestinian Authority to collect its own taxes.

The Authority had an economic problem before the elections, she said. Despite a chronic deficit they had been able to meet the February payroll. March salaries, however, were still not paid. Even if aid was given, the restrictions on banks would prevent it from reaching the Authority. Without urgent assistance it would be difficult for the Palestinian Authority to provide basic services. Over the past few years the United Nations had covered a wide range of services. Because of the economic situation they had gone from development aid to economic aid. It was important for the United Nations to redesign their programmes in accordance with the new reality.

She said four strategic working groups were set up. Unfortunately, more recent political developments had put development aid into question. The present situation required the United Nations agencies to provide a rapid response to the needs of the Palestinian people. It was important to set priorities and to coordinate so as to avoid double efforts. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and 12 United Nations agencies had launched an appeal to donor countries. In response to the appeal, less that 20 per cent of the projects had been financed. In principle, the United Nations would continue to find the appropriate means to respond to the needs of the Palestinian people, but they would not replace the Government. The United Nations would continue its work to achieve a just and durable peace. Now more than ever before the international community was called on to act seriously to achieve that objective.

KHALED MANSOUR, Senior Regional Information Officer/Spokesman, Regional Bureau for the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, World Food Programme, Cairo, said the only sustainable solution for food insecurity was political. Until there was an uninterrupted flow of food and imports into Palestinian lands and regular access to jobs and salaries, humanitarian food assistance was the answer. The current problems could be attributed to the restriction of movement of people and goods. Conditions had become worse after the cut in donor funding.

He said the Programme needed to increase its funding to reach 600,000 Palestinians who were not refugees. That was a limited and temporary approach. The Programme was currently 63 per cent short of the required funding needed to service that number of people. The United States had promised $30 million, but the money could only be used in conjunction with non-governmental organizations. As a result, the Programme was looking for other donors to step in to help. Without new donors, the Programme might be forced to stop providing help to those now being taken care of by the Palestinian Authority. Those clients included the members of female headed families, widows with large numbers of children, orphans, the handicapped and the elderly. Those were the most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor who would suffer first as their coping mechanisms were long exhausted and their means of survival severely limited.

The representative of China said his Government respected the choice of a country and the choice of its people. The result of the Palestinian elections reflected the will of the Palestinian people which the international community should respect and recognize. The international community should adopt measures that could ameliorate the humanitarian situation and avoid taking action that could exacerbate the situation. China had long provided financial and material assistance to the Palestinians for development, given assistance to the refugees, offered scholarships and implemented training programmes for the Palestinian Authority officials. There were no political conditions to China's stance.

The representative of the African Union expressed his organization's concern over the deteriorating situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The African Union included 53 countries. They might not have the money to give, but they had a sufficient political voice in the United Nations. He urged the Israeli authorities to end activities that undermined social stability. It was needed to find practical solutions in that dangerous situation. He wanted the Union's message to reach the wider world and he wished his colleagues in the European Union were here to hear the message. Peace in the world could not be built unless there was peace in that region of the world. The Union reiterated its demand for Israel to discontinue the building the wall. There were many Palestinian economists and specialists, but in the current circumstances it was not possible to offer solutions based on economic reform. In spite of the economic siege the Israeli policy was one of suffocation. If the Palestinians died out, it would be another holocaust. Africa did not approve of the Holocaust, but would not accept another holocaust.

The representative of Yemen said the attacks against the institutions and infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority and the activities against them, arbitrary detentions, destruction of houses, etc., were illegitimate acts. Yemen had always supported the Palestinian people and rejected collective punishment. Peace would be an objective that was harder and harder to achieve. He called on the donor community to review its position because it would not help the Palestinian people to attain peace.

The representative of Senegal said he had participated in a Committee to investigate Israeli practices against the Palestinian people. They had met here and though they visited the Occupied Palestinian Territory, they had not been allowed to visit Israel. The situation in the Territory now was beginning to look like a catastrophe. The situation was constantly deteriorating. It was urgent for the donor community to continue its assistance. It was essential to have an environment to recreate the peace process to reach a modicum of consensus on Palestinian State. The Palestinians together would define a single framework to allow the international community to assist them.

In the closing session, representative of the host Government Naela Gabr said her Government called on the international community to assist in mitigating the suffering of the Palestinian people. If the international community took pride in the United Nations resolution establishing the Human Rights Council it would be all the more to move forward in this area. Egypt remained committed to acting in solidarity with the Palestinians and supporting their rights. She endorsed the Secretary-General's statement that the international community was responsible for finding ways to help the two parties find peace.

The representative of Palestine, RIYAD MANSOUR, said the Cairo meeting was a step in helping the Palestinian people. The meeting wanted to accomplish certain objectives. The first were to invite representatives of United Nations agencies who were involved in programmes in the Occupied Territory, examine the programmes and look for ways to improve and coordinate those programmes. Another objective was to find ways to continue the donations from the donor countries. He hoped the seminar played a role in helping the donor countries resume donor aid given their political concerns.

The Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, PAUL BADJI, reviewed the work of the Seminar. He said that while the meeting was taking place at a difficult time, it was also a sensitive juncture for all who were working for the achievement by the Palestinian people of its inalienable rights. The participants heard detailed first-hand reports of the current economic and humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and reaffirmed that it was crucial to expand and accelerate assistance to the Palestinians as a matter of great urgency.

Round-up of Meeting

Representatives of 55 Governments, the Observer of Palestine, four international organizations, 16 United Nations agencies, eight non-governmental organizations, and 31 representatives of the media took part in the two-day meeting. Held in conference rooms of the Conrad Hotel, the meeting was divided into two plenaries and involved the participation of 13 experts.

The Seminar was convened in accordance with General Assembly resolution 60/36 of 10 February 2006 by which the Assembly requests the Committee to promote the realization of Palestinian rights, to support the Middle East process and to mobilize international support for and assistance to the Palestinian people. In resolution 60/37 of 10 February 2006, the Assembly requests the Secretary-General to provide the Division of Palestinian Rights with resources to carry out the organization of meetings and conferences in various regions with the participation of all sectors of the international community.

Naela Gabr, Assistant Foreign Minister for Multilateral Affairs, opened the two-day meeting which began on 26 April. The keynote address was delivered by Nabil Sha'ath, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Plenary I heard presentations on the scope of the economic and humanitarian crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The theme of Plenary II concerned the United Nations and international community's support of the Palestinian people.

Committee Background

The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People was established by General Assembly resolution 3376 (XXX) of November 1975. By that resolution, the Assembly mandated the Committee to recommend a programme to enable the Palestinian people to exercise its inalienable rights as recognized by General Assembly resolution 3236 (XXIX) of 22 November 1974.

In its first and subsequent reports to the Assembly, the Committee has stressed that a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine, the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, must be based on the relevant United Nations resolutions and the following principles: the withdrawal of Israel from Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, and from other occupied Arab territories; respect for the right of all States in the region to live in peace within secure and internationally recognized boundaries; and the recognition and exercise of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, primarily the right to self-determination. Each year the Assembly has renewed the Committee's mandate and requested it to intensify its efforts.

The Committee is composed of the following Member States: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Cyprus, Guinea, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tunisia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Observers of the Committee are: Algeria, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Nicaragua, Niger, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Syria, Palestine, African Union, League of African States and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

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