A simmering sense of no way out

When Karen Koning-Abu Zayd says she is revolted by the thought of Gaza still being under siege a year from now, when she leaves her post, her words should not be taken lightly. For more than 25 years she has been working with refugees. Koning-Abu Zayd, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), has seen miserable, crowded camps in Africa and the Balkan nations close up. It is not easy to repulse her.

She began her humanitarian career in Sudan, where she met her late husband and cared for refugees from the battlefields of Uganda, Chad and Ethiopia.

In 1989, she moved to Namibia to assist in rehabilitating those who fled South African Apartheid. A year later, she was dispatched to Sierra Leone, where she directed the establishment of 600 villages for 100,000 refugees from Liberia's brutal civil war.

In the mid-1990s, the UN aide from Chicago placed herself squarely in the midst of a new battleground, this time in Europe. For two years, at the peak of the war in Bosnia, she led the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sarajevo. That office saved thousands from ethnic cleansing and its air-lifted care packages nourished 4 million people. Koning-Abu Zayd arrived in the Middle East seven years ago between the euphoric days of the summit at Camp David and the first days of the second intifada. For five years, she acted as deputy commissioner for Palestinian refugees, and since the summer of 2005 has been in charge of the office of the organization that serves 4.4 million Palestinians and employs 25,000 workers, most of them Palestinian refugees.

In 1950, UNRWA registrars maintained a list of 914,000 refugees. But about 1 million refugees are now registered in the Gaza Strip alone, half of them crowded into eight refugee camps. Every day new refugees who have lost their source of income visit Koning-Abu Zayd's Gaza office, asking to have their names added to the list of the impoverished. Their distress, she says, neither minimizes their support of Hamas nor dispels their ambitions to return to the homes they abandoned 60 years ago.

"Gaza continues calm on the surface, but simmering beneath, with periodic eruptions signaling underlying tensions. Businessmen and unemployed workers grow increasingly pessimistic and anxious about their future, their livelihoods, their children. They are beginning to worry about how long the rift between Gaza and the West Bank might last and with what further consequences," observes Koning-Abu Zayd.

"What I would say, and I say it reluctantly, sadly, perhaps, is that there do seem to be more and more people losing hope for the future... I think when I first came, of course I came during the glory days of Camp David at that time, and we were hopeful then, and then the intifada started and then things got worse, but people were always saying to me then, after the intifada started, 'I may not see a Palestinian state in my lifetime, but my children will.'

"Now I hear people say, 'We're going to leave, we're getting out of here... those who have the opportunity, of course, many of them don't. They say, 'We don't see the future. We don't see the Palestinian state.'

"So they're leaving, and I think you see that... I think this perhaps is one of the most unfortunate indicators of how people are not managing anymore, and don't see how they can in the future. They don't mention security, they don't talk about the economy ... though, nowadays, they don't have to mention the economy, but they mention their children. They say, 'We have to do something for our children; we have to think about them.' I find this a very unfortunate development among the people.

"These are only the people who can get out. And, of course, in Gaza, there is a very small minority of people who have means, the skilled people with more education. In Gaza, it is very difficult to get out. You really are stuck there. You don't have a chance. How many thousands of people are now out of jobs? How many more are coming on to the aid rolls? This is something that we can't see the end of. How far can this go?"

Collective punishment

What is your opinion of the Israeli proposal to deprive the Gaza Strip of electricity and water in response to Qassam missile fire?

"I cannot believe there could be a cutoff of electricity and water. I'm sure those who I'm told are researching whether such measures are legal under international law will conclude that they are not. The sealing off of Gaza, its isolation, 'imprisonment,' as it is deemed by those stuck inside, is already viewed as 'collective punishment.'

"While support for extreme groups may be waning, according to some recent surveys, there are those who grow more extreme in response to such measures. That is not an unusual phenomenon among groups or territories that are isolated and pushed into a corner.

"We like to think that UNRWA's summer games have been proof of the benefits of a different approach: Providing opportunities for recreation, for experimenting with alternative ways of looking at the world.

"Our real problem is we've been around so long, and because refugees have been refugees so long and came 60 years ago. Things are more crowded every year." In school, children sit at the same desks and benches that their parents once sat at, she says. "They're full of splinters. The older children have to sit three to a bench. We get very good Arab funding, particularly from the Saudis and the Emirates for construction projects, which helps a lot in rebuilding houses and building whole communities and better schools and clinics and so on."

But you are not getting cement [because of the closure].

"It's not us - it's the contractors who are not getting the materials that they need to carry out the work. The houses and the schools that we're doing are nearly finished and should be open for this school year.

"If we look at other conflicts, and other refugee situations, despite the uniqueness of this one, we do see that there are ways out of it. Even in conflicts that have lasted a long time, when there's been a lot of disenchantment between the parties, they have somehow managed. Eventually, people get really tired of living the way they're living - under conflict on the Israeli side, I think, and some fear. And on the Palestinian side, living conditions and lack of future."

If you were Israeli, would you trust the Palestinians?

"Yes, and I believe that this will work, and that they are really interested in a two-state solution. Even Hamas people talk about the two-state solution and the Israeli state. They've accepted that."

Koning-Abu Zayd recognizes that any agreement has an element of risk, but she says: "The risk is least if you try to sign an agreement, if you try to come to an agreement and you try to deal with these issues, instead of postponing them again and again.

"The Palestinians are enterprising. They want to work hard. They could make it work. Look at what they've been doing despite the intifada and despite the boycott of the last year and a half. Look at all the things that are going on. I myself was surprised that there were still 3,900 businesses to close in Gaza. They have closed recently because of Karni [crossing] not being open and imports not coming in and exports not going out. Rafah, of course, needs to be opened up, too. The problem is that the Qassams give Israel an excuse not to do this, to punish them. It's a vicious circle. Very frustrating."

You believe that Abu Mazen will come back from the summit in November with a document, and he will go to Gaza. Do you think that the people of Gaza will support him?

"I really can't speak for the people of Gaza so much, but I'm always referring back to the statistics, which may be changing somewhat. Basically support, even in Gaza, is 30 percent Hamas, 30 percent Fatah, and 40 percent independent. So where are these 40 percent going to come down? I think that's where the change is coming. You're getting more and more people who declare themselves pragmatists, as you call those who can offer something to the people."

Will refugees support a Palestinian government that relinquishes the right of return?

"Before everything else, at the very least, the right of return must be acknowledged. That it is their right. They may make another choice but they have the right to return. That's very important to Gazans."

Do you identify a desire, on the part of refugees in neighboring Arab states, to move to the Palestinian state that would be established in the territories?

"I think a lot of them still have that dream, and a lot of them still have land in the West Bank. So they would have somewhere to come. They will have a very difficult choice. They've made their lives there fairly comfortable."

You say that refugees should have the right to choose where they go, but Israel has already decided for them that they will not come to Israel.

"I think that it's very difficult to begin discussing with refugees that they don't have that part of the choice to return to their homes, which is so important to them. But then there are other choices, either to stay where they are, or to come to a Palestinian state once that's agreed upon, as a viable state, and the other choice is going to a third country, which has been mooted before for, perhaps, those in Lebanon, for example.

"The Lebanese government has been making quite an effort to improve the living conditions, working together with us to improve conditions in the camps and try to open up some of the occupations that had been closed to them in past. Even Yasser Arafat spoke of that option."