UNRWA Head: Need to Resolve Conflict, Not Just Manage It

Event Video

Pierre Krähenbühl, the head of the UN agency responsible for a Palestinian population that has soared from 750,000 people at its inception in 1950 to five million today, said that it was no longer enough to focus on managing the festering crisis but necessary now to try to resolve it.

“Surely, this is a time to create the political horizon, to have the international community take seriously the issue, not to manage conflict, which has been the paradigm of the last 20 years,” said Mr. Krähenbühl, the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). “But if you would reinvest and refocus on conflict resolution, that would be a completely different issue.”

Speaking to an overflow IPI audience on November 1st, Mr. Krähenbühl described the plight of the Palestinian refugees in stark terms.

Sixty-five percent of Palestinians are under the age of 25. Like much of the region, educating and providing opportunities for that population is essential to Palestine’s development, Mr. Krähenbühl said.

UNRWA operates 250 schools for 260,000 students in Gaza, but there are few job opportunities available when they graduate. He said, “65% of young people in the Gaza Strip remain unemployed, a world record by any measure,” he said. “Last year, when UNRWA was looking to recruit 150 new teachers, the fact that we had 22,000 qualified applicants is something that indicates how desperate people in Gaza are to find a job at all.”

Speaking from his 25 years of work in conflict zones, Mr. Krähenbühl emphasized that trends developing for Palestine refugees will perpetuate regional instability in the absence of a political process. “I think what is important for the international community to see is that none of this is unknown to us, we cannot in a year’s time, if that situation were to explode again, were a new round of conflict to take place, Hamas and Israel and other factions, none of us would be able to say we didn’t see that one coming.”

Gaza is home to two million people and nearly half are Palestine refugees. Ninety percent of them will never leave this small enclave which borders the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Egypt, and is just 25 miles long and 6.2 miles wide, he said.

This experience is in contrast to that of an older generation, now about 50 years old. “If you meet representatives of that generation, they will say to you that they grew up still personally knowing Israelis, whereas their children today have never met an Israeli because of the absolute imposition of the blockade, the lack of opportunity to leave the Gaza Strip, and in that sense, it is a generation that grew up knowing of ‘the other’ from the perspective of fear, destruction, and anonymity,” he said.

A recent visit of the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to an UNRWA school provided some perspective and inspiration for young Palestinians. Just after the Korean War, the Secretary-General had his first interaction with the UN system through his own education in a UN school. He recalled sitting on the cold ground for his lessons after the school building had been destroyed in the war, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) logo sprawled across the notebook given to him.

Addressing students who ranged in age from 10 to 16, he encouraged them not only to invest in their education, but also, to learn as much as possible about human rights. One boy, age 14, asked him, “Mr. Secretary-General, we believe in human rights, we study human rights, I just have one question, why do these rights not apply to us?” Mr. Krähenbühl concluded that behind the statistics, we must remember the individual stories, and individual dignity of Palestine refugees.

He offered another such story from his own experience on the ground. While surveying the damage after the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, Mr. Krähenbühl found an UNRWA notebook in the rubble. He searched for its owner, and was relieved to find that she had survived. Rua’ Kdeih, an 11-year-old girl from the Gaza Strip, was then invited to return to her school when it reopened to read her poem about peace. That day, she gave her notebook to Mr. Krähenbühl so that her message could be heard worldwide.

“Hope is a wonderful friend that might disappear, but it will never betray,” she wrote in her poem. “I am happy to share it with you today,” Mr. Krähenbühl said, “as another sign that behind the headlines, behind all the perceptions, there are young people among the refugee community who don’t want pity, they just want to be recognized.”

Els Debuf, IPI Senior Advisor, moderated the conversation.

The event was held as part of IPI’s Humanitarian Affairs Series.