UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide help to some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees. Robert Turner is leaving his post after three years as the agency's Gaza director. DW talked to him about his experiences.
DW: You have been running the Gaza-office operations for UNRWA for the past three years. What do you think about your time in Gaza?
Robert Turner: It is easy to despair about Gaza, it is easy to look at all the problems and think, this can never be resolved. But you also say, look these people are remarkably resilient, they have been through a lot and if there is an opportunity they will take advantage of it. They will create opportunities. I am going to leave here very reluctantly in a way, because it has been such a remarkable experience but with some optimism that things can improve.
It is also a challenging work environment. You've experienced two wars, one in 2012 and you were in Gaza during the conflict last summer which lasted 51 days.
We thought that the 2012 war was quite difficult until we had the 2014 one and then we thought well actually we thought that the 2012 one was a 'piece of cake' in comparison. Particularly last summer was in many ways absolutely horrible. I think our response was remarkable, the response of the staff was remarkable and to have the opportunity to be part of that is something that I will never forget. They did an absolutely amazing job under extremely difficult conditions in a very dangerous context but they showed up - more than 5,000 people showed up for work every day to make sure that people were taken care of. It has been the most challenging but certainly the most rewarding job that I ever had and it will probably remain the most challenging and rewarding no matter what I ever do after that.
How would you describe the situation in Gaza now, one year after the last war ended?
I think overall the conditions for most people in Gaza are worse than they were a year ago. The humanitarian situation has not improved, the unemployment and poverty have not improved and on top of all of that you overlay all of the damage, the physical and psychological damage from last summer's conflict.
Many people in Gaza say that they don't get enough help, reconstruction is very slow, especially for those who lost their homes during last summer's conflict.
There are two different groups, there is those who have damage to their homes and they need funds to repair and there are those whose homes were totally destroyed and need funds for reconstruction. For repair it is simply a funding issue. We just don't have enough money. We have spent for repair and rental subsidies and we assisted more than 60,000 families. And if we could spend tens of millions more we could spend it almost immediately. For those whose homes were totally demolished there have been technical issues as well as funding issues. Now, the technical issues have been resolved, in the sense that the residential stream of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism is now in place, so we can now submit clearance for homes to be completely rebuild. We were able to submit the first tranche of names recently, the first group was approved and last week we made the first payments. It is only 35 families this week - but it is a start.
Has there been a change in the Israeli approach?
Without being able to see what crystal ball they are using, there is a reflection and recognition that conditions need to change and approaches need to change. And you see them in public statements by some Israeli officials that there is an understanding that for Israelis to have security, the conditions in Gaza need to improve for the Palestinians. When I talked to Israelis before the war last year, and we talked about the things that needed to happen to avoid a conflict, all of those things I was told were impossible and these things are now happening. The scale is not enough, but the fact that they are happening is really significant. And I think they are taking some politically courageous steps and we hope that these will be accelerated, expanded and continued.
Over the past decade more and more people have become dependent on UNRWA's assistance programs for Palestinian refugees. The organization is facing severe budgetary problems itself. How does this financial strain affect your work on the ground?
We have different funding issues. We are still seeking more funding for the reconstruction program. And we have some significant support coming from Germany, and the second is for our general fund from which we fund our human development activities, from which we fund our schools, our health clinics, solid waste collection and things like that. In our general fund, we are facing a deficit of $101 million and it is an unprecedented deficit, it has never been this high. We had to take some very difficult decisions to control costs, including reducing international short term staff, freezing recruitment, we are looking at increasing the average class sizes, so there will be more kids per class, so we have fewer teachers. So we are looking at reducing costs but we also have to find more income.
After three years in Gaza, what will take with you from here?
One of the things that I learned here really is humility. In a couple of ways. One is being amongst the Palestinian people in Gaza and seeing what they have been enduring over the past eight years and despite the difficulties, and I think, there are people who are giving up hope, but in general they have not succumbed to the despair that I think would have been entirely justified by the situation.
There is an anecdote from the war of 2012 that I always remember. I went to our health clinic in the city center to visit the staff and see how they were doing. And there was a group of young women with their babies. So I asked the doctor, what are these women doing here, and he said, well they called to see if the clinic is open and they brought their babies in to get their vaccines. I always thought this is entirely extraordinary, we talk about resilient communities, here you had these women, in the middle of the war, bringing their babies to be immunized. This is such an example of a population that can adapt, a population that is so steadfast, I think it is really remarkable.
Robert Turner took on the post as UNRWA's Gaza director in 2012 and served during two conflicts.