Interview with UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini: Resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to be a priority for Egypt

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Interview with UNRWA High Commissioner Philippe Lazzarini: The resolution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine remains a priority for Egypt

Philippe Lazzarini (right), High Commissioner of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) seen during a visit to al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt Sameh Shoukry received the UNRWA High Commissioner and the UN Under-Secretary General, Philippe Lazzarini, in Cairo, on 6 March 2023. The two discussed ways towards a peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause as well as the role of the Egypt in terms of gathering regional support for the Agency.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established in 1949 to provide relief to more than 700,000 Palestinians displaced following the 1948 Israeli invasion – anchored in national memory as the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe.’

UNRWA’s mandate has been renewed every three years since, in the absence of any resolution to the conflict or resolution of the ongoing Palestinian refugee crisis.

The agency, which is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from member states, provides access to education, health, relief and social services for nearly 6 million refugees. As a result of increasing challenges, including the global economic crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the agency is facing enormous financial pressure.

Following his meeting with Shoukry, Egypt Streets contacted Lazzarini for further comments on Egypt’s role in supporting UNRWA’s mission in the face of ongoing pressures, the Agency’s efforts to raise awareness about the conflict among youth of Egypt, and how UNRWA works to address the specific challenges. address Palestinian women refugees.

UNRWA issued a call for USD 1.6 billion for programs and operations in 2023, due to the financial challenges facing the agency in the face of underfunding, competitive global crises, and inflation, among other factors. How have these obstacles affected UNRWA’s ability to provide services to Palestinian refugees?

[…] Multiple challenges over the past year, including underfunding, global competitive crises, inflation, supply chain disruptions, geopolitical dynamics, and levels of poverty and unemployment among Palestinian refugees have placed enormous pressure on UNRWA. Most Palestinian refugees live below the poverty line, and many rely on humanitarian aid, including cash and food.

For example, in Gaza, the price increase is between 30 percent – ​​40 percent, resulting in a significant increase in Palestinian refugee needs. The war in Ukraine has drawn world attention to the issue of Palestinian refugees and their needs, as most financial support is directed to those fleeing Ukraine. Some of our donors have already started to take austerity measures. All the consequences of natural disasters, conflicts and wars are increasing the number of refugees fleeing their homes, causing resources to be shared among large groups of people.

In your meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, you discussed UNRWA’s desire to consult closely with Egypt given its important role in supporting the agency’s activities and mobilizing international support. How would you describe Egypt’s role in supporting and raising awareness of UNRWA’s mission?

Egypt is a founding member of UNRWA and has historically and politically supported the Agency. As a significant regional power, Egypt’s support for the Agency and its support for UNRWA is extremely important. The continued support confirms Egypt’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, and the meeting I had with the member states of the Arab League helps to shed light on the challenges facing UNRWA and which negatively affect the lives of Palestinian refugees. The Agency is grateful for the support of the Egyptian government and will continue to rely on Egypt to use global political and financial support. We look forward to continuing our strong strategic relationship with Egypt.

Another point raised was Egypt’s commitment to work towards a peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause. What steps does UNRWA hope Egypt will take to that end, especially given its presidency of the Arab League Council session at the level of foreign ministers?

Egypt’s political and diplomatic prowess has an impact on the entire Arab region. Resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine has always been a priority for Egypt. In light of the recent escalation in the occupied Palestinian territories, we know that President Sisi has presided over significant forums and conferences to control the situation on the ground. I look forward to the Aqaba follow-up meeting in Sharm El Sheikhhoping that all parties will find common ground to encourage a ceasefire.

Over the past decade, young people have been exposed to a flood of online information about the Palestinian occupation, leading to desensitization as well as misinformation. What steps can be taken to increase awareness among Egyptian youth about the plight of Palestinian refugees and give them accurate information about the situation?

Through our social media channels, we always aim to raise global awareness of the challenges facing Palestinian refugees, and UNRWA’s efforts to alleviate their living situation, and provide them with the humanitarian assistance they need. We are also keen to participate in forums that speak directly to the youth. In 2022, the UNRWA Representative Office in Cairo participated in the World Youth Forum in Sharm El Sheikh where the Head of the office gave a speech addressing the struggle of the Palestinian refugees, and what the regional and international communities need to support together with the most vulnerable communities. of Palestinian refugees.

What efforts has UNRWA made to include young voices in the conversation about the Palestinian cause and the tools that social media provides to raise awareness and support?

We have more than half a million students in more than 700 schools and 8,000 Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) centres. The priority of our strategy for the next 5 years is to focus on empowering the youth, so that they can overcome feelings of despair. UNRWA is proud to have established the Agency-wide Student Parliament in 2017 which provides an opportunity for UNRWA students from the five areas of operations to meet and work together to support their communities and advocate for their rights locally, regionally and globally. It is part of the Education Program of the Agency for Human Rights, Conflict Resolution, and Tolerance (HRCRT), supported by the US government since 1999.

Our young people are always involved in panel discussions about their experiences in student parliaments, schools or training centres. Last year, Ghada Krayem, a young Palestinian refugee from Gaza, shared her success story as the first female technician in renewable energy at the 2nd edition of the World Conference on the State of Human Rights, co-organized by the European Parliament and the Global Human Campus . Rights in Venice, Italy.

How UNRWA has worked to address the specific challenges faced by Palestinian women – who face substantial barriers of access to education and disclosure with gender-based physical and sexual violence, among other challenges?

Gender equality is central to UNRWA’s commitment to the welfare, human development and protection of Palestine refugees. Providing assistance to survivors of gender-based violence is an integral part of our protection framework for Palestine refugees. We have provided services to more than 4,000 survivors by implementing programs that address cases of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable groups, including women and children. Through these programmes, we provide psychosocial support, medical assistance and referrals to specialist services.

How are UNRWA’s Gender Parity Strategyimplemented between 2016 and 2021, it worked to the active participation Palestinian women in organizational decision-making?

On this year’s International Women’s Day, we have launched the UNRWA Gender Equality Champion Award. The award recognizes the work of UNRWA employees, leadership, teams, or projects that significantly contribute to the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment across the Agency’s programs for Palestine refugees and within the Agency’s staff. It will also celebrate achievements and encourage us to innovate and come. We are very proud of what we have already achieved, including full gender parity in our schools several years ago.

Last year, before Ramadan, UNRWA launched a the first digital fundraiser campaign in Egypt with the aim of supporting thousands of Palestinian refugee families through which anyone could start a fundraiser and invite their relatives to donate to support Palestinian refugees. Will UNRWA be launching such an initiative this year?

UNRWA launches digital fundraising campaigns every year in Ramadan. This year will be no different. It will not be focused on a specific country, but yes, it is still an ongoing option for all currencies including EGP to start a fundraiser.

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