A leading Vatican diplomat has expressed his alarm over the effect the Syrian civil war is having on the estimated 438,000 Palestinian refugees in the country.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations, on Monday said the Palestinian question “regrettably remains prominent among all the problems affecting the Middle East today.”
He was speaking at a UN General Assembly meeting on UNRWA, the agency established in 1949 to provide relief for the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Its mandate also includes Palestinians who fled or were expelled from the West Bank and Gaza after the Six Day War in 1967.
According to the agency, 418,000 Palestinians in Syria rely on humanitarian assistance, including cash, food and non-food items, to survive.
Over half of them have been displaced at least once within the country.
“The Holy See also follows with grave concern the significant impact of the Syrian crisis on the neighboring countries,” Auza said. “Particularly in Lebanon, the growth in the number of Palestine refugees stretches the capacities of the existing camps and impacts the possibilities of Lebanon itself.”
Lebanon had just over 4 million people before the Syrian Civil War and currently houses about 1.5 million Syrian refugees. This is in addition to the 450,000 Palestinian refugees who were already in the country.
The influx of Palestinians following the Arab-Israeli wars, and the affect it had on Lebanon’s delicate demographic balance, was a major factor in the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.
The archbishop also reiterated the Vatican’s “unwavering support” for a two-state solution to the Palestinian crisis, allowing Israel and Palestine “to live in peace within secure and recognized borders in an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation.”
Auza said recent gradual attempts to move away from a two-state solution are “cause for very grave concern.”
“The collapse in April 2014 of the peace negotiations between the two parties has led to negative unilateral actions and acts of violence stoked by inflammatory rhetoric from both parties,” he said.
“If they do not agree to exist side-by-side, reconciled and sovereign within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders, peace will remain a distant dream and security an illusion. And UNRWA, though it was never meant to last this long and much less to be permanent, will continue to be needed,” Auza said.
Serious clashes between Israelis and Palestinians took place this summer, after Israel established metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount –called the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims – after gunmen killed two Israeli policemen at the site.
After a week of violence, Israel removed the new security measures, which Muslim authorities claimed violated agreements surrounding shared holy sites in Jerusalem.