Swiss president moves to calm Palestinian aid outcry

UNRWA head Pierre Krähenbühl (left) and Swiss foreign affairs minister Ignazio Cassis (right) during the visit to Jordan on May 14, 2018 Keystone

President Alain Berset says there is no change in Swiss policy on the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, which remains a strategic partner for Switzerland. 

This content was published on May 18, 2018 - 17:28
Frédéric Burnand, Temps/ilj/jc

He was speaking on Friday after a meeting with foreign minister Ignazio Cassis, who caused outcry on Thursday by saying that the United Nations’ aid work for Palestinian refugees is a stumbling block to peace in the Middle East.  

Berset said UNRWA “plays an essential role for stability in the region and the fight against radicalisation”. But he said that as a donor it was legitimate for Switzerland to join the debate on the agency’s future. 

Experts reacted with surprise and consternation to Cassis’ comments.  So long as Palestinians live in refugee camps, they can dream of returning home, Cassis said in an interviewExternal link published in several Swiss newspapers on Thursday, which came after his first official trip to Jordan. Five million Palestinian refugees currently live in such camps, with aid and protection provided by the UNRWAExternal link, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

He said that UNRWA had become part of the problem rather than the solution and it supplied the ammunition to continue the conflict. “By supporting the UNRWA, we keep the conflict alive. It’s a perverse logic,” Cassis said. He called for the integration of long-term refugees in their countries of residence.


Former Swiss diplomat to the Middle East Yves Besson - and a former UNRWA director -  told swissinfo.chExternal link that he was astonished by these comments. “The UNRWA is today the last vestige of the international community’s interest in the Palestinians and their refugees. What’s more, these comments are anything but neutral: this argument will be of service to Israel and the United States.”

Washington has said that it wants to significantly reduce or end UNRWA involvement.

Besson added that, during the Oslo peace process, the Palestinians had not called for the effective return of millions of Palestinians, but the recognition of Israel’s responsibility towards the 700,000 Palestinians who fled in 1948.

“Cassis shows little concern for these people who rely on their origin and right to return – even if they would necessarily not use it,” said Besson.

Riccardo Bocco, Middle East expert at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, agrees. “We should not confuse the origin of the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948 with the solution found for the Palestinian refugees. And the situation for Palestinian refugees is different depending on the country they are in. Who is advising Cassis?

UNRWA reaction

Speaking to the Le TempsExternal link daily, Pierre Krähenbühl, the Swiss current head of the UNRWA, did not want to wade directly into the debate around the comments. “Switzerland has until now given excellent support to the UNRWA,” he told the newspaper. This collaboration includes a good number of “innovative projects” which help the organisation to “reinvent itself”.

“If you look at what has happened in the Middle East, our role as provider of humanitarian assistance, medical work and training has increased in importance," he said. 

Reaction from politicians was mixed. Christian Imark of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party told the SRF public radio that Cassis’ statement was a “step in the right direction”. Social Democrat Carlo Sommaruga, however, said he was shocked and announced he would raise the issue during next month’s summer session of parliament.

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