Why there are so many UN refugee camps in Gaza?


Dr. Rex Brynen is one of Canada’s leading experts on the issue of Palestinian refugees

Last week, after yet another UN facility was bombed in Gaza, killing many civilians, I interviewed Dr. Rex Brynen. I asked him about the role of UNRWA (the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees).

Professor Brynen, of McGill University, is a Middle East specialist, and has become one of Canada’s leading experts on the issue of the Palestinian refugees. He is co-editor and contributor, with Roula El-Rifai of “The Palestinian Refugee Problem: The Search for Resolution”. London: Pluto Books, 2013.

The interview follows:


  1. How does the issue of Palestinian refugees link to the current situation in Gaza?

Brynen: Two-thirds of the population of Gaza are refugees, whose families were forcibly displaced from Israel in 1948 and barred from returning. Of these, almost half live in refugee camps. Gaza is very much a society shaped by the refugee experience.

Today, with the fighting in Gaza, we see around 400,000 Palestinian displaced again by Israeli attacks.

  1. Why are there so many UN clinics, schools and hospitals in Gaza?

Brynen: UNRWA has been a very important humanitarian actor in Gaza. Over a quarter of a million Gazans are being fed and sheltered in some 90 UNRWA schools that have been turned into emergency shelters. 9 UNRWA staff have been killed in the conflict, and many more have lost their homes and family members.

Even when there isn’t a crisis, UNRWA operates 245 schools in Gaza, teaching 232,000 Palestinian kids every day. It operates 22 clinics. In conjunction with the World Food Programme it provides supplementary food supplies for up to 800,000 persons. Its role is essential. Without the Agency, things in Gaza would be far, far worse.

  1. Canada at one time had assumed a significant role for the “refugee issue”. What was that role, and what have we done with it?

Brynen: From 1992 onwards Canada was gavel of the Refugee Working Group of the Middle East Peace process. Behind the scenes it also was also very active in fostering quiet, track-two dialogue and policy-relevant research on the refugee issue, in close cooperation with all of the regional parties—something known at the time as the “Ottawa process.”

This became more difficult after the second intifada, and with changes in Israeli politics. Political changes in Canada had an effect too. The Liberals under Paul Martin were less interested in taking a creative role on this issue. However, the really big shift came with the election of the Harper government, which has aligned itself strongly with the right wing of Israeli politics. Not only did Canada effectively end its engagement on the refugee issue, but it also terminated funding for UNRWA.

Despite that, Canadian expertise on the issue continues to be engaged by other countries—the Americans, the Europeans, and in the region itself—but that no longer takes place with government of Canada support.

  1. Some people say that the Israel/Palestine issue will not be resolved until the refugee issue is solved. Do you agree?

Brynen: The refugee issue is a deeply important one, and the refugee experience is at core of Palestinian national consciousness. I do not think there can be a just and lasting solution to the conflict without addressing it.

  1. Some people say that the refugee issue can never be solved. Do you agree?

Brynen: Oh, I think it can be solved. In 2001 in the Taba negotiations both sides made substantial progress towards agreement, and those negotiators have openly said a deal is possible. However, I do not believe that the current Israeli government is prepared to show sufficient flexibility on key issues. Israel is the primary stumbling block in the “peace process.” Also, the necessary concessions that the Palestinians will have to make (for example, no large-scale right of return to 1948 areas) would be painful ones, and not necessarily popular. We’re a very long way away from peace at the moment, unfortunately.

Thank you Dr. Brynen