The head of the United Nations agency tasked with helping Palestinian refugees said today that the ceasefire halting the recent violence between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza offered a chance to “address the real problems underlying the crisis.”
“It is of crucial… importance that we seize the opportunity provided by this tragic escalation,” the Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA), Filippo Grandi, said in remarks at a meeting of the body’s Advisory Commission, taking place by the Dead Sea in Jordan.
“Difficult political work would have to be carried out, including promoting and supporting lasting Palestinian unity,” he noted in reference to divisions among the wider Palestinian leadership, according to an UNRWA news release.
“But failing to act now will have dire consequences,” he added.
The ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, which controls Gaza, was announced on 21 November, just over a week after the start of the latest wave of deadly violence, which included rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza, and Israeli airstrikes on targets in the Strip.
In his remarks, Mr. Grandi also noted that an Israeli blockade on Gaza, imposed since 2007, was illegal, and the “greatest danger is to return to the status quo ante, and restore the prison-like conditions of Gaza.” He said it would be “only a matter of time (until) violence resumes” if there was such a return.
Mr. Grandi called for the blockade, which Israel has reportedly said it maintains for security reasons, to be “lifted in all its aspects.” He mentioned crossings, fishing zones, imports and exports as aspects of the blockade in need of address, and said there should be “proper guarantees given to – and by – all parties in respect of the security of all civilians.”
Created by the UN General Assembly in 1949, UNWRA is the main provider of education, health, social and other basic services to the five million registered Palestinian refugees in Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The refugees trace their roots to those displaced amid the Arab-Israeli hostilities of 1948. The Assembly created the Advisory Commission, which comprises 25 UN Member States and three Observer entities, to “advise and assist” UNWRA.
On Saturday, UNWRA re-opened all but two of its 245 schools in Gaza, according to the agency. It added that all 21 of its health centres resumed operations on Sunday, while it also named three crossings into the Strip that were open.
“The fragile calm in Gaza seems to hold,” UNRWA said in a situation report, while also highlighting that a Palestinian youth was killed and 19 other people injured on Friday by fire from the Israel Defense Forces.
“The people of Gaza used the official holiday on Friday to mourn their beloved ones, to rest, and to somehow find a way back into daily life,” the report noted. “The first heavy winter storms, accompanied by strong winds, rain, and cold temperatures, brought further hardship to all those living in damaged homes.”
Mr. Grandi also briefed the Commission on UNRWA’s work amid the crisis in Syria, where many of UNRWA’s beneficiaries are located and where violence – since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began over 20 months ago – has killed at least 20,000 people, mostly civilians, and spawned more than 440,000 refugees.
“Concerns about the welfare of the half-million Palestine refugees there have grown as they are increasingly affected by the conflict,” the Commissioner-General said. “UNRWA’s strategy in Syria, as in Gaza, is to be there, to maintain services, and to address the growing emergency needs as much as possible.”