Gaza Strip

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) registered 798,400 refugees in the Gaza Strip and 569,700 in the West Bank in 1999. After Jordan, the largest number of UNRWA-registered refugees lived in the Gaza Strip (22 percent), followed by the West Bank (15.7 percent). In the West Bank, only 27 percent of the registered refugees lived in camps. In the Gaza Strip, on the other hand, 55 percent of registered Palestinian refugees lived in eight refugee camps.

Although Israel and the Occupied Territories experienced less violence than in years past, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank remained tense with sporadic clashes and protests in 1999. In fact, some observers said that Palestinians were more pessimistic about their future than in previous years. Although a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza reportedly supported peace negotiations with Israel, most also thought that they would result in few, if any, tangible benefits.

"Peace Process"

After three years of stalled negotiations and bitter recriminations between Palestinians and Israel's Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the election of Labor's Ehud Barak as prime minister of Israel in May appeared to offer hope for reviving the deadlocked peace process.

In early September, Israel's new government and the Palestinian Authority (PA) concluded the Sharm El-Sheikh Memorandum, committing both sides to fulfill their obligations under the September 1995 Interim Agreement (called "Oslo II"), and subsequent agreements that Israel only partially implemented, including the October 1998 Wye Memorandum.

Under the Sharm El-Sheikh Memorandum, Israel pledged to cede an additional 11 percent of West Bank territory to full or partial Palestinian control – a commitment that the Netanyahu government had agreed to in signing the Wye Memorandum but had not fulfilled after it was forced to call for new elections in December 1998. (Under Netanyahu's leadership, Israel ceded control over only 2 percent of the 13 percent of West Bank land it had agreed to relinquish to Palestinians under Wye.) The Sharm El Sheikh Memorandum committed Israel to transferring West Bank land in three stages, to be carried out in September, November, and January, respectively. Israel completed the first of the three land transfers in September as planned but postponed the second land transfer until early 2000 (see Population Zones below).

Under Sharm El-Sheikh, Israel also agreed to fulfill its prior commitment to release some 350 Palestinian prisoners and approved the opening of two "safe passage routes" between the Gaza Strip and West Bank. While the PA and Israel opened a safe passage route between the Gaza Strip and the southern West Bank in November (see Travel Restrictions below), they had not agreed to arrangements for opening a northern free passage route for Palestinians by year's end.

The Sharm El-Sheikh Memorandum also permits Palestinians to proceed with the construction of a sea port in the Gaza Strip and commits both sides to collaborate closely on maintaining security.

In addition to these commitments – all made in previous interim agreements – both sides agreed to resume "final status" negotiations on a permanent resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Final status talks are intended to resolve the thornier issues that remain outstanding between the two sides, including the status of refugees, Israeli settlements, Jerusalem, final borders, and water rights.

According to the 1993 Oslo Agreement, final status negotiations were to have concluded by May 4, 1999. However, with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister, the talks were adjourned as soon as they began in May 1996 and did not meaningfully resume during Netanyahu's tenure in office. In reviving final status talks, the Sharm El-Sheikh Memorandum set an ambitious timetable for negotiations; the memorandum gave the parties six months to agree on a framework for the talks and another six months to conclude a final agreement. Final status negotiations officially reopened in September 1999.

Notwithstanding this progress, statements by Palestinian and Israeli officials during the later months of 1999 point to a wide gap between the two parties on final status issues. Their differences were greatest on the rights of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and the future status of Jerusalem.

Shortly after taking office as Israeli prime minister in July, Ehud Barak said that under no circumstances would Israel permit Palestinian refugees to reclaim their homes in present-day Israel, asserting that they should instead permanently integrate in their present countries of asylum. After several years with the refugee question in the background, Barak's remarks reignited a fiercely emotional public debate on the future status of Palestinian refugees, most of whom continue to insist on their right to return to reclaim their former homes in what is now Israel.

The question of Arab East Jerusalem's future, which Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 war, remained equally emotional and divisive. While Palestinians claim Arab East Jerusalem as their future capital, Israel continued to assert sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, insisting that it would not cede any part of the city to Palestinians.

Israel also thwarted Palestinian aspirations to recovering most, or all, of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by continuing to expropriate Palestinian land for the expansion of Jewish settlements. At year's end, the Barak government had not halted the expansion of Jewish settlements, which Palestinians argue are unfairly predetermining the outcome of final status negotiations. The Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) reported that Israel has expanded settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 50 percent since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The forcible expropriation of occupied land is illegal under international law.

Population Zones

Israel continued to control most of the land in the West Bank and a substantial portion of the Gaza Strip in 1999, but delegated to the PA varying degrees of control over the areas where Palestinian populations lived. This patchwork, created by Oslo II, established three zones: Zone A, consisting of large Palestinian population centers where the PA is responsible for security and civil authority; Zone B, other Palestinian residential areas, mostly villages, where Palestinian police are allowed to operate but Israel maintains overall control over security; and Zone C, Israeli settlements, strategic military sites in the Jordan Valley, and large tracts of sparsely populated rural land where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) maintain complete authority.

Shortly after signing the Sharm El-Sheik Memorandum in early September 1999, Israel transferred 7 percent of West Bank territory from Zone C to Zone B, bringing 36 percent of the West Bank under full or partial Palestinian control (10.1 percent was in Zone A and 25.9 percent in Zone B). Under the second land transfer, delayed until January 2000, Israel agreed to cede an additional 3 percent of the West Bank from Zone C to Zone B and 2 percent from Zone B to Zone A. In the third and final land transfer under the interim agreements, Israel agreed to pass 1 percent of the West Bank from Zone C to Zone A and 5.1 percent from Zone B to Zone A.

(Israel completed the second and third land transfers in January and March 2000, respectively, bringing 40 percent of the West Bank under full or partial Palestinian control – 18.2 percent in Zone A and 21.8 percent in Zone B.)

Nevertheless, at the end of 1999, 64 percent of the territory of the West Bank and 40 percent of the territory of the Gaza Strip were in Zone C, where the Israeli Defense Forces maintained complete authority. Moreover, rather than receiving contiguous pieces of land, Palestinian territory consists of more than 200 separate enclaves surrounded by military checkpoints and bisected by a network of 29 bypass roads (350 meters wide for security reasons) connecting settlements, which require special permits for Palestinians to use. In 1999, some 170,000 Israeli settlers resided in about 160 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Travel Restrictions

Although the PA issues passports and other travel documents to the Palestinians residing in the areas under its jurisdiction, during 1999 the Israeli authorities maintained its general closure on the Occupied Territories, preventing most Palestinians from traveling into Israel or East Jerusalem from the West Bank or Gaza Strip without specific travel permits. Israel often denies applicants permits without explanation, and does not allow effective means of appeal.

After several years of delay, Israel and the PA opened a free passage route across Israel connecting the southern West Bank to the Gaza Strip in November, fulfilling a pledge made under the 1995 Oslo II agreement. The parties had yet to reach an agreement on a northern free passage route at year's end, however – also mandated by Oslo II. Although the southern safe passage route eased the problems of some Palestinians caused by limits on their ability to move freely, some Palestinian human rights groups criticized the free passage arrangement for continuing to maintain restrictions on other Palestinians. By the end of November, some 15,000 Palestinians had received permits to use the route, while 2,900 had been refused permission.

Prior to November, Israeli authorities rarely gave Gazans permission to travel to the West Bank, or West Bank residents permission to travel to Gaza. Israeli authorities made it difficult for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to travel to PA-controlled areas of the West Bank throughout the year, and Palestinians married to Jerusalem residents, but not themselves residents of the city, encountered substantial difficulties in trying to live in Jerusalem.

In October, Israeli Interior Minister Nathan Sharansky announced that Israel would no longer confiscate Jerusalem residence permits of Palestinians who have been away from Jerusalem for more than seven years – a policy that had affected many Palestinians who had traveled to other countries for work purposes. Between 1996 and 1999, Israeli authorities withdrew 2,000 Palestinian residence permits for Jerusalem, denying residency rights to more than 8,000 people.

Travel restrictions were particularly severe for young Palestinian males, whom the authorities often considered security risks. Although Israeli troops redeployed out of the major population centers of the West Bank, in many cases they still controlled the roads connecting those West Bank towns.

Israel imposes "tightened closures" during holidays, elections, and in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. During periods of tightened closure, Israel completely blocks access to its territory and East Jerusalem from all or parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Israeli authorities also revoke all Palestinian permits for travel to Israel. In 1999, Israeli authorities continued a policy begun the previous September to ease the process for long-time Palestinian workers in Israel who are unmarried and at least 29 years old to renew their work permits and resume work in Israel during periods of tightened closure. Israel imposed tightened closures for a total of 15 days in 1999.

Israel did not impose a full-scale "internal closure" during 1999. In years past, Israel had imposed internal closures within the West Bank following terrorist attacks. Internal closures prevent Palestinians from traveling between villages and towns, including within the areas under PA jurisdiction. Essentially, commerce, higher educational activities, and much health care cease during internal closures.

However, Israel did impose targeted internal closures around West Bank cities where security incidents occurred several times in 1999. Israeli authorities imposed a closure on Hebron after several Israeli settlers were shot and wounded in separate incidents in January and August. A curfew also accompanied the January closure; both lasted for a week, and interfered with Palestinians' ability to go to school, travel, and do business. During curfews, Israelis are generally free to move about while Palestinians are confined to their homes.

Travel restrictions also hampered UNRWA's work. Although the number of UNRWA staff issued permits to travel between the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Israel increased by 8 during the UNRWA's 1998-99 reporting year to a total of 312, Israel continued to deny travel permits to a substantial number of UNRWA's Palestinian employees (99 percent of UNRWA's work force) on unspecified security grounds. Moreover, Israel requires even those Palestinian employees of UNRWA with travel permits to obtain a special security clearance to drive vehicles into Israel. UNRWA reported that Israel's refusal to issue security clearances to many employees significantly disrupted its operations.

Palestinians often do not travel abroad for fear of being denied re-entry to the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. Israeli authorities do not permit adult Palestinian males traveling to Jordan to return less than nine months after leaving, yet generally forbid them from returning permanently if they spend more than three years abroad. The Israeli authorities require all Palestinians residing in the areas under Israeli control to obtain travel permits before traveling to other countries.

Demolition of Palestinian Homes

Israeli authorities demolished more than 2,600 Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories between 1987 and the end of 1999, rendering their 16,700 residents homeless, according to Amnesty International. In a December 1999 report, Amnesty said that demolitions of Palestinian homes continued after Ehud Barak took office as Israel's prime minister in July despite the protest of several ministers in his cabinet. Pointing to at least two housing demolitions in East Jerusalem in November, Amnesty reported that Israeli demolition orders threaten some 10,000 other Palestinian homes in the city.

Although the Israeli government argues that its actions are the result of a building policy that is applied equally to Arabs and Jews, the Amnesty International report found that Israeli officials enforce the rules in a discriminatory manner, strictly denying construction permits for Palestinian homes while allowing the construction of Israeli settlements to proceed.

Refugee Status

One irony of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority was that Palestinian refugee camps continued to exist under its jurisdiction and that Palestinians living under the jurisdiction of a Palestinian governing authority continued to hold refugee status. UNRWA-registered refugees in the Gaza Strip and those in parts of the West Bank under Palestinian self-rule retained their refugee status both because of their origin inside present-day Israel and because of the relevant UN General Assembly resolutions defining the nature of the Palestinian refugee problem and solutions for Palestinian refugees. These resolutions, most adopted prior to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, create a unique treatment for Palestinian refugees that differs from the approach found in the Refugee Convention.

The key General Assembly resolution, Res. 194, provides only two solutions: repatriation for those refugees "wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors," or compensation for those choosing not to return.

In Resolution 302 (IV), the UN General Assembly created UNRWA and assigned to it the task of caring for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA defined Palestinian refugees as persons who resided in Palestine two years prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1948, who lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of that war.

When the UN adopted the Refugee Convention and established the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it excluded those falling within the UNRWA mandate from being covered under UNHCR's mandate. In effect, this means that UNHCR does not concern itself with (or count) Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, or the West Bank and Gaza Strip, although it may assist Palestinian refugees outside the UNRWA-mandate area. Therefore, being under the authority of a Palestinian political entity (which could represent the cessation of refugee status for other refugee groups covered by the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol) does not terminate refugee status for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank who either fled in 1948 from what is now Israel or who are descended from persons who fled at that time.

Even if the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians were considered solely under the terms of the UN Refugee Convention, however, they would still qualify as refugees. Under the Convention, refugee status ceases once refugees are able to re-avail themselves of the protection of their state of nationality or another state. Palestinian refugees residing in the area have not been able to do so.

Although a Palestinian Authority has been established in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, it does not have sovereignty. The Oslo and Cairo agreements explicitly state that during the interim period (before final status has been agreed upon), the territory of the Palestinian Authority is not a state. Although the PA issues passports, it does not confer citizenship. To obtain a Palestinian passport, an applicant must produce an identity card, and Israel controls the issuance of identity cards. Israel continues to be the occupying power under international humanitarian law. The territories – even the Palestinian "self-rule" areas – remain subject to the Israeli military government, and, according to Oslo II, Israel retains "the overriding responsibility for security."

The Oslo accords carefully distinguished between those refugees who fled Palestine in 1948, and their descendants, and those persons displaced by the 1967 war, mostly from the West Bank to Jordan, which, at the time, claimed sovereignty on both sides of the Jordan River. This distinction, while arguably useful politically, is based on a misnomer, in USCR's view: the West Bank Palestinians who fled to the east bank of the Jordan River were indeed internally displaced in 1967; their status, however, should have changed from "displaced" to "refugee" when King Hussein rescinded Jordan's claims of sovereignty over the West Bank in 1988. The distinction was maintained, however, to distinguish between those refugees whose goal was return to Israel itself (the 1948 refugees) and those who were seeking to return only to the Israeli-occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip (the 1967 displaced).

Negotiations

Both Israel and the Palestinians judged that it would be easier to resolve the situation of the persons displaced from the Occupied Territories as a result of the 1967 war rather than those who were displaced from what became Israel in 1948. Therefore, the Oslo accords maintained the approach started in Camp David in 1978 of tackling the issue of the 1967 displaced people first and deferring until the "permanent status" talks the attempt to resolve the issue of the 1948 refugees. As a result, many refugees who trace their exile to 1948 have felt marginalized by the peace process.

Despite the decision to begin with the issue of displaced persons, no agreement has been reached to date. The Israelis differ with the Palestinians and representatives of the Arab states on both the definition and number of displaced persons. Israel contends that the number is between 200,000 and 300,000 and has limited its count to those who fled as a direct result of the 1967 war. The Arab parties, on the other hand, put the number between 800,000 and 1,000,000. They also include in their count persons who were outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip before the outbreak of hostilities as well as Palestinians who left or were forced to leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip because of Israeli military measures after 1967, and were not allowed to return.

The Palestinians and Arab countries also have raised the issue of a group known as "latecomers." These are about 100,000 people whom Israel had registered as residents after the 1967 war, and had given permission to work or travel abroad. Because they failed to return in time to renew their re-entry visas, the Israelis revoked their documents and refused to allow them to return. The Arab parties insist on the unconditional return of all displaced persons from the West Bank and Gaza Strip regardless of the reasons for their displacement. Israel's willingness to allow displaced persons to return is more narrowly framed, and Israeli officials are adamant in their refusal to consider readmitting persons who had been expelled for political or security reasons. The parties did not make any progress in 1999 on resolving the status of the 1967 displaced.

The gap in the parties' positions on the 1948 refugees is even wider. The Arabs insist on the "right of return" as proclaimed in UN Resolution 194, with its choice of either repatriation or compensation for those refugees not wishing to repatriate. The Israelis reject UN Resolution 194 as a basis for discussion, saying that the "right of return" is incompatible with Israel's right of self-determination. Israel also insists that any discussion of compensation be based on the principle of reciprocity, taking into account Jews who were expelled from Arab countries as a result of the establishment of the State of Israel.

Palestinian Economy

After declining throughout most of the 1990s, the economy in the Gaza Strip and West Bank showed some modest signs of improvement in 1999. The Palestinian economy reportedly grew at a rate of 4.7 percent during the year. Economic growth helped create 47,000 new jobs during the first half of 1999, which in turn reduced the unemployment rate to 13.8 percent in June 1999, down from 15.6 percent in June 1998. Unemployment continued to remain higher in the Gaza Strip than in the West Bank during the year.

Nevertheless, UNRWA reported in the fall of 1999 that the benefits of these positive economic trends did not reach many Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories, particularly those in the Gaza Strip. Some 38 percent of Gaza residents lived in poverty, 26 percent in absolute poverty, according to UNRWA. Statistics indicated that refugees living in Gaza's refugee camps fared yet worse, with 42 percent living below the poverty line.

Other economic indicators were also poor. In a report issued during the fall of 1999, the UN Special Coordinator for the Occupied Territories (UNSCO) said that Palestinian private investment and exports, critical to sustainable private sector growth, remained stagnant during the year. UNSCO said that border and mobility restrictions were factors that contributed to a decline in exports. UNSCO also noted a downward trend in public investment in 1999, resulting from donors failing to make good on their pledges to provide assistance.

Low standards of living for Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories have eroded support for the peace process, which had promised to improve the material well-being of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

UNRWA's Precarious Finances

UNRWA's precarious financial situation improved little in 1999. Since 1993, UNRWA has struggled to serve a growing refugee population with a roughly constant annual budget. The cumulative effect, UNRWA reported to the General Assembly in 1999, has been to reduce the average annual expenditure per refugee by 37 percent, from about $110 in 1992 to about $69 in 1999, not accounting for inflation.

Since 1993, a string of annual budget deficits forced UNRWA to institute several rounds of austerity measures, which remained in place in 1999.

Relief and Development

Despite its weakened financial position, UNRWA continued to assist refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the year. Since 1993, UNRWA has worked to spur development projects with the Peace Implementation Program (PIP). PIP focused on income-generation projects (particularly in the Gaza Strip), creation of jobs, and infrastructure development intended to build confidence in the peace process. Projects included constructing and upgrading schools, clinics, and community centers, rehabilitating housing, and installing or improving camp sewage and drainage systems. Although PIP was originally intended to fund special projects exclusively, it has also partially funded UNRWA's regular programs affected by the agency's shortfalls.

During UNRWA's 1998-99 reporting year, donations to PIP remained low. Concluding that the PIP program had run its course, UNRWA shifted its focus from beginning new projects to completing projects already underway in anticipation of the program's ending.

The centerpiece of PIP development in the Gaza Strip was building the 232-bed European Gaza Hospital. Construction was finished by the end of 1996, but funding shortages held up equipment purchases and the commissioning of the hospital, preventing its opening. Still not operational three years later in 1999, the hospital is expected to open in the summer of 2000.

Major PIP development projects completed in the Gaza Strip during 1999 included building a sewage and drainage system for Beach camp and upgrading a pumping station, both in the Gaza Strip. At the end of its 1998-99 reporting year, UNRWA had yet to complete renovations on the sewage and drainage systems of several other refugee camps in Gaza and a public health laboratory in the West Bank.

UNRWA provided repatriation assistance to 40 Palestinian refugee families who returned to the Gaza Strip from Canada refugee camp in Egyptian Sinai during the year. UNRWA assistance paid for the families to construct new homes as well as a six-month reintegration grant.

UNRWA also continued to assist vulnerable refugees unable to meet their basic needs. Families without a male adult medically fit to work or other means of support were eligible for special hardship assistance – primarily food. After Lebanon, the Gaza Strip continued to have the second highest percentage of refugees enrolled in UNRWA's special hardship program (8.4 percent of the Gaza's refugee population), reflecting the poor socio-economic conditions and job opportunities there. Some 5.3 percent of the West Bank's refugee population were registered with UNRWA as special hardship cases in 1999.

UNRWA also worked to rehabilitate substandard housing for vulnerable refugee families, although the needs far outstripped its resources. Although extra donations enabled UNRWA to rehabilitate 1,305 refugee houses in all of its fields of operation during its 1998-99 reporting year (up from 505 the previous year), this was still substantially fewer than the 4,559 houses it renovated during the 1994-95 reporting period. Some 25 percent of UNRWA-registered hardship cases in all of UNRWA's fields of operation lived in housing that did not meet minimally acceptable standards.

To promote greater self-sufficiency among the disadvantaged, UNRWA also assisted other vulnerable refugees, many of them women, by offering skills training and organizing group savings-and-loan schemes, particularly in the Gaza Strip. Despite its budget constraints, UNRWA was able to increase the funding and number of small scale loans in the Gaza Strip. UNRWA awarded 7,014 loans valued at $8.3 million in Gaza for the 1998-99 reporting year, compared with 6,193 loans valued at $7.3 million for the previous year.

During UNRWA's 1998-99 reporting year, the Gaza Strip refugee population grew by 3.3 percent, slower than the previous year but still a faster rate than in any of the other areas of UNRWA operation. The increase reflects a relatively high birth rate and a continuing influx of refugee families to the Gaza Strip.

Growth of the Gaza Strip's refugee population remained evident in school registration, which for the 1998-99 school year rose 6 percent above that of 1996-97. The Gaza Strip had the highest classroom occupancy rate in any of UNRWA's fields of operation, with an average of 50 students per class. About three-quarters of UNRWA's schools in the Gaza Strip operate on double shifts. To reduce pressure on its school facilities, UNRWA completed construction of one school during its 1998-99 reporting year and was building five more schools as the year drew to a close.

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