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  • 12:27 - 11 October 2020

Covid and Palestinian Refugees: “Infection Rate Explodes” – Politics

International (Drah- agencies)--

Philippe Lazzarini has headed the United Nations Aid Agency for Palestine Refugees as Commissioner General since April. The 56-year-old Swiss and Italian previously worked for the UN in Lebanon.

Mr Lazzarini, what did you think when you were asked to lead the UN relief organization for Palestinian refugees: Oh God, why am I doing this to myself or: a big challenge?

When I took the post, I knew very well what I was getting into. And I’ve been working in the region for a long time. In this respect I was able to estimate what to expect. This includes both UNRWA’s difficult financial resources and the high expectations the refugees have of us. But of course I had no idea at the time that I would mainly focus on the fight against Covid. Our work is complicated, not least by the fact that many look at it through political eyes.

Your organization has faced many problems and accusations lately. For example, there were irregularities at the top of management; America stopped its payments and called for reform. How do you plan to improve UNRWA’s image again?

You are dealing with two different things here. On the one hand, the US withdrew from funding the organization in 2018. That was a shock to us. But then we managed to mobilize the international community. Fortunately, we were able to make up for the loss. That was a great expression of solidarity.

And on the other side?We did have administrative problems. It was about internal decision-making processes. We have therefore implemented staff changes …

Your predecessor has been replaced.

… and transparency increased again. But this had nothing to do with irregularities in the financing of our work. Fortunately, we can now fully concentrate on helping the 5.6 million Palestinian refugees.

[Die Zahl der Corona-Infektionen in der Hauptstadt steigen rasant: Verfolgen Sie hier die Entwicklungen im Corona-Blog für Berlin.]

What are your priorities?In addition to ensuring that UNRWA’s financial resources are as safe as possible, my main concern is the fight against the pandemic. The spread of the coronavirus has consequences on many levels.

For instance?

Just think of the more than 700 schools that UNRWA operates. We must now ensure that the children are educated digitally. Or that people often live in completely overpopulated, impoverished regions, where social distance and compliance with hygiene rules are in principle impossible. People are asking: How am I supposed to keep contact restrictions when my kids need food? And we must provide for the Palestinians under these dire circumstances – a decent education and all the things that are important for survival.

Test first, then lessons. In Gaza, analogue education is sometimes provided, but a lot has to be done through e-learning. Photo: Mohammed Salem / Reuters

How hard does Covid hit the Palestinians?

Very difficult! We are now dealing with 10,000 infected people. The infection rate is dramatic, yes, it explodes. This is especially true for the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That reflects the situation in Israel. Because Covid de facto gets out of hand there. The same goes for Lebanon and Gaza. This is especially fatal in the coastal strip. Because there is no adequate health system there. And don’t forget, Gaza has been blocked since Hamas came to power in 2007. So the supply situation is very, very difficult anyway. Almost two million people live there – and almost all of them depend on daily help. This mainly concerns food that UNRWA makes available. Regardless of the fact that we are the second most important employer.

Philippe Lazzarini has been leading UN aid for Palestinian refugees for several months. Photo: imago / Pacific Press Agency

Are the residents of Gaza increasingly thinking of leaving their homeland, possibly on their way to Europe?

People are desperate, have lost hope that something can change for the better. Young people in particular see no perspective for themselves and long for a normal life. This kind of despair also occurs in Lebanese camps and villages. As refugees, Palestinians feel discriminated against in many places.

How can UNRWA give people hope?

By teaching them! 500,000 students are taught by our teachers today. That is why it is so important that we are financially able to provide state-like services. UNRWA is trying to enable the Palestinians to live a life of dignity. Failing that, stability in the region is at stake. Ultimately, it is about a contribution to peaceful coexistence.

Why doesn’t Donald Trump believe your organization can?

You should ask the American president. The donors who continue to support us – also fortunately Germany – trust us and our work. Because it is an essential contribution to the development of the region.

[Mit dem Newsletter „Twenty/Twenty“ begleiten unsere US-Experten Sie jeden Donnerstag auf dem Weg zur Präsidentschaftswahl. Hier geht es zur kostenlosen Anmeldung: tagesspiegel.de/twentytwenty.]

And what about the rich Gulf States? Are the Arab monarchies doing enough to support the Palestinians?You play an important role. When the US pulled out of funding from UNRWA, the Gulf states helped close the gap. I am confident that this commitment will continue.

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