"We Need Open Borders"

The Gaza Strip has been sealed off from the outside world by Israel since June 2007. Karen Koning AbuZayd, director of the UN relief organization for Palestinian refugees, tells Alexander Kudascheff about the humanitarian situation there

People waiting for supplies to be unloaded from a truck (Photo: AP)
In Gaza shortages can be felt everywhere: there is not enough fuel, electricity or water

​​Madam Commissioner-General, you live and work in Gaza, what is the situation like there today?

Karen Koning AbuZayd: The situation is very bad at the moment. It actually has been bad ever since the end of October 2000, since the beginning of the Intifada. It became worse still when Hamas won the elections in 2006, and things have gone downhill even further as a result of internal power struggles since last June and the blockade of Gaza.

Last week things once again took a turn for the worse; there is no fuel left and now we also have problems with electricity, water and waste water disposal.

Do you need emergency humanitarian aid there?

AbuZayd: We do have humanitarian aid, with Israel and the Israeli army guaranteeing that medications and food can get in. But after all these years, people can no longer live only on aid. They need more – especially in Gaza.

That means that people first need a political solution – or shall we say, a truce?

AbuZayd: We don't speak here of a truce, but already call it a ceasefire when the Palestinians stop firing off rockets, when the Israelis don't attack or invade or shoot people from the air. But those periods never last long.

What we need more than anything is the ability to move around freely and the opening of the borders. The entire private economy has collapsed because no raw materials are coming in and no goods can be exported. An additional 75,000 people have lost their jobs since last June for this reason.

Do you sense a political will on the part of Israel to lift the embargo?

AbuZayd: No, because they are making it contingent on certain conditions. They say that the firing of rockets and shooting must stop, and the internal power struggles must come to an end. They want Hamas to meet their terms before they will even talk to them. But the time is ripe for all parties to participate in talks toward finding a solution.

Do you think that Hamas has displayed the will to stop the attacks?

AbuZayd: Well, we have been hearing that the will is there, and attempts have been made. Often it's other, smaller groups that are shooting off rockets, then something happens and Hamas ends up joining in. It seems to me as if both sides are continually provoking each other.

Is the situation in the West Bank any better?

AbuZayd: It's somewhat better. At least there's more space there. People can come and go, with difficulty of course, but even to Israel and Jordan with permission. But the situation in the West Bank is also very serious, something that is often overlooked. There are a few oases like Ramallah where things appear to function pretty well and the economic situation is relatively stable.

But there are many problems caused by the Wall, the expansion of the settlements, the many checkpoints and roadblocks – there are over 500 – that split up the West Bank. This makes us doubt whether a nation that is to be built on a territory crisscrossed everywhere by the enemy will be able to survive.

Karen Koning AbuZayd (Photo: AP)
It is vital to keep the Palestinians and Palestinian refugees informed on political developments, says AbuZayd

​​You are responsible for all Palestinian refugees. What is their situation like in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan?

AbuZayd: In Jordan the Palestinian refugees are citizens who enjoy full rights just like other citizens. In Syria they are not citizens but do have the right to work and attend university. In these countries we have completely different possibilities for helping people. We are able to do so because we do not have to spend the money on relieving humanitarian crises.

In Lebanon the situation is different; things have always been very hard there for Palestinian refugees, much worse than elsewhere. But since Prime Minister Siniora came to office in 2005, things have changed. The Palestinians are now able to look for work outside the camps and we can improve living conditions in the camps.

Everyone actually already knows what a political solution in the Middle East could look like. Do you think the Annapolis process has a chance?

AbuZayd: What I expect from Annapolis is that by the end of the year there will at least be some proposals for possible solutions to a few points of conflict. Some of them are very complicated, such as the refugee question, Jerusalem, the border issue, water supply.

But it is also important to keep the Palestinians and Palestinian refugees informed on decisions that will affect their lives. What we would like to see is everyone sitting around a negotiating table and letting us know what has been resolved.

Interview: Alexander Kudascheff

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor


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UNRWA is the United Nations organisation which supports Palestinian refugees