UNICEF’s Palestinian Programme

This is the sixth in a series of articles by Palestine & The UN regarding U.N. committees, bodies and programmes dealing specifically with the question of Palestine or assistance to the Palestinian people. The articles have focused on their establishment, as well as their histories, mandates, work and compositions. The five previously reviewed have been: The Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories, Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), and UNDP’s Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People. The sixth to be reviewed in this series is the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) programme for Palestinian children and women.

In 1978, the U.N. General Assembly adopted resolution 33/147, in which it called upon U.N. agencies and other organizations to intensify efforts "to improve the social and economic conditions of the Palestinian people by identifying their social and economic needs and by establishing concrete projects to that end". This resolution served as the basis, inter alia, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) programme of assistance for Palestinian children and women.

The UNICEF programme is formally called the "Programme of cooperation for Palestinian children and women in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic and the West Bank and Gaza". (This title remains in spite of all political changes and U.N. use of the term ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’.) It should be noted that UNICEF’s assistance to Palestinian children and women in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon specifically targets the Palestinian refugee population in those countries.

UNICEF’s involvement in the Occupied Palestinian Territory began in the early 1980s. At that time, the Agency began providing assistance to Palestinian children in coordination with other U.N. agencies and organizations working there, particularly UNRWA with which UNICEF continues to maintain very close collaboration. In its early years, however, the assistance did not consist of systematic planned projects but rather entailed sporadic sponsoring of programs for specific child issues and only for limited times. This included support for activities in the fields of immunization, diarrhea disease control, early childhood development, water and sanitation, and training of health personnel.

One explanation given by UNICEF for its limited sponsorship during the start of its assistance to Palestinian children was that money supporting these activities came from a supplementary fund, which was dependent upon voluntary contributions. However, at the time, it was widely believed by the Palestinian side that the main reason for UNICEF’s delay in instituting a systematic programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territory was lack of a concrete political decision to undertake such a commitment there.

Between 1980 and 1990, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Office of UNICEF, located in Amman, Jordan, managed UNICEF’s programme of assistance to Palestinian children and women. The objectives of that programme were to improve services related to childhood development for Palestinian children in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon; to improve preventive health services; and to expedite the physical rehabilitation of children injured as a result of the Israeli aggression against Palestinian civilians during the intifada that began in late 1987.

New trends and developments emerged in UNICEF’s programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territory in the early 1990s. In 1991, UNICEF’s Executive Board adopted resolution 1991/15, which was submitted by the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the U.N., in light of the difficult conditions of Palestinian children in specific and the deteriorating situation in the region in general. That resolution recalled "the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1990 and the Declaration and Plan Action adopted by the World Summit for Children, and the stipulation therein pertaining to children living under difficult circumstances, especially those living under occupation". Accordingly, the Executive Board affirmed "the need to intensify assistance to Palestinian children and women". Moreover, it requested UNICEF’s Executive Director "to continue to urgently assess the situation of Palestinian children and women and to provide funds commensurate with the expanding needs of these children and women".

In accordance with that resolution, UNICEF prepared a study on the situation of Palestinian children, which then served as the basis for the 1992-1994 programme of cooperation for Palestinian children and women. Moreover, resources began to be drawn from both the general Agency fund and supplementary funds, aimed at supporting needed activities given the difficult situation and at ensuring timely implementation of projects in the health, education, and physical and mental rehabilitation sectors.

In 1991, UNICEF also established a sub-office in Jerusalem and appointed a "Resident Project Officer" to facilitate its operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and ensure effective use of resources for implementation of the programme. The existence of this office was also necessary for allowing Agency staff to work with people directly in the field. In establishing the office, UNICEF submitted a request to the Israeli Ministry of Social Welfare, which was followed by an exchange of letters between the Agency and Ministry concerning technical arrangements such as entry and travel permits. However, the details regarding the types of projects and programme operations at the time were discussed and coordinated with local Palestinian NGOs and other educational, health and social institutions. Today, this local office operates under the auspices of the U.N. Development Programme’s Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People (UNDP/PAPP), which means that UNICEF’s assistance programme is essentially considered by Israel, the occupying Power, to be a part of UNDP operations.

The increasing momentum of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process following the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993 ushered an increase in the involvement and coordination of U.N. agencies in providing assistance to the Palestinian people. As a result, in 1994, the Executive Board adopted resolution 1994/R.2/7, in which it took into consideration "the new emerging situation in the Middle East, the need for an increase of assistance for Palestinian children and women, and the need to follow an integrated approach in this regard". This was followed by a presentation by the Director of UNICEF’s MENA section, which contained an assessment of the programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as well as a new initiative for strengthening it, including strategies for capacity building and service delivery. To support the new initiative, UNICEF decided to upgrade its office in Jerusalem with the appointment of a Special Representative.

The Palestinian side viewed UNICEF’s decision in 1994 to move to an integrated approach as a necessary and progressive step. Prior to this decision, UNICEF’s programme for Palestinian children and women was not unified and did not deal with Palestinian children as one entity. The Palestinian side always maintained, however, that, although the conditions of Palestinian children varied widely from country to country, in general their situations were similar in that they lived under very difficult circumstances and lacked many basic needs and services. Therefore, it was believed that an integrated approach would appropriately address those needs and contribute to the effective allocation of funding in response to cases of most need by Palestinian children and in response to the changing situation and priorities. Following many formal and informal negotiations with UNICEF’s Secretariat and Executive Directors, the delegation of Palestine to the U.N. succeeded in 1997 in achieving a unified and comprehensive country programme for Palestinian children, with priority being given to the situation of Palestinian children in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Among the main activities in UNICEF’s current programme for Palestinian children and women are the following: 1) Promotion of child health, including immunization programs, physical screenings, training for health professionals, and provision of supplies and equipment to clinics, paramedics and hospitals. 2) Promotion of early childhood care for survival, growth and development, including, inter alia, support to pre-school facilities and improvement of parental knowledge of childcare practices through the stages of early childhood, primary school age and adolescence. 3) Introduction of new learning approaches to promote child-friendly school environments, which has involved the development of teaching and learning materials as well as the training of teachers of primary, secondary and vocational schools. 4) Community empowerment programs for women. 5) Support to community centers and training programs for youth leaders.

UNICEF’s programme of assistance to Palestinian children is also now coordinated with the Palestinian National Plan of Action (NPA) for Palestinian children. In 1994, then Executive Director of UNICEF James Grant met with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and they agreed to develop a plan of action to strengthen and coordinated the programme of assistance for Palestinian children. This was followed by endorsement of the Palestinian NPA by the UNICEF Regional Director and the Special Representative for the Occupied Territory. In April 1995, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) launched the NPA, and, since then, many Palestinian initiatives for children have been carried out in cooperation and coordination with UNICEF. In this regard, in its most recent country programme recommendation for Palestinian children, UNICEF notes that "despite the young age of the Palestinian Authority (established in 1994) and the limitations of its jurisdiction, it has given high priority to programmes and institutions to promote children’s well-being". This has included, for example, incorporation of the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in the NPA and the establishment of structures to implement them, such as in various Ministries, along with cooperation with Palestinian associations and NGOs and the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

Nevertheless, the work of UNICEF in the Occupied Palestinian Territory still has no official or legal framework. As noted above, UNICEF operates in the Occupied Territory under UNDP auspices. Until now a basic agreement has not been concluded between UNICEF and the PNA. (Such agreements have been concluded with UNRWA and UNDP.) This issue and its legal implications are still under discussion by UNICEF and the PNA. Yet, to guarantee implementation and continuity of the programme of assistance a "Master Plan of Operation" was jointly signed by the PNA and UNICEF and a "Memorandum of Understanding" was concluded with the relevant Palestinian Ministries.

However, the Palestinian side still believes there is a need for an official framework between UNICEF and the PNA to clearly define and coordinate their relationship. It would also help to clarify the role of UNICEF in the Occupied Palestinian Territory vis-à-vis other U.N. agencies and concerned NGOs with programs there, which is important for avoiding overlap or repetition of activities and ensuring that all funding is wisely utilized for necessary projects. In fact, in the country programme recommendation presented during the second regular session of 2000, it was noted that UNICEF’s assistance needs to be more realistic and focused, complementing assistance provided by other U.N. agencies in the area and other organizations providing assistance to Palestinian children and women.

Aside from the legal issue, there is a political issue that remains unresolved with regard to the UNICEF programme. In all its documents the Agency uses the term "West Bank and Gaza" rather than the term Occupied Palestinian Territory. As such, the terminology used by the Agency has not been congruent with that used by the U.N. system as a whole when referring to the Occupied Territory. Efforts are ongoing to have the Agency adhere to the accepted U.N. language and terminology.

Another ongoing problem is the hindrance of UNICEF’s services for Palestinian children and women due to actions and measures of the occupying Power, including the imposition of closures on the Occupied Territory and restrictions on the movement of persons and goods. It is a problem that continues to be experienced by all U.N. agencies working in the area. In its report to the second regular session in 2000, UNICEF noted that "the dispersion of the population, as well as restrictions by Israel on movements associated with the fragmentation of land, continue to hinder access and service delivery". Such restrictions and problems have increased in recent months as a result of the deteriorating situation on the ground. Moreover, it was noted that the programme objectives of UNICEF were frequently found by the Agency to be challenging to implement, given the difficulties of planning in such an unstable environment.

Nevertheless, UNICEF’s programme for Palestinian children and women in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria continues to provide important services in conjunction with the important and necessary services being provided by other U.N. agencies, particularly UNRWA and UNDP, for the Palestinian people. Indeed, this assistance is very much needed, especially in light of the continuing difficult socioeconomic conditions being faced by the Palestinian people, particularly the children, living under Israeli occupation.