A World without UNRWA?

With the world media focusing on the crisis in Syria, it has been forgotten that Syria is home to some 400,000 Palestinian refugees.  This includes 14,000 Palestinians who inhabit a refugee camp in the bombarded city of Homs, and who rely on UNRWA, the UN Agency tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees, for their daily needs.

Hamas’s recent condemnation of the Assad regime is unlikely to endear it to the Syrian government, but, in fact, over the years Syria has treated the Palestinians relatively well, if one compares the way Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt have treated their Palestinian refugee communities. Moreover, unlike Israel, Syria has never threatened the UN Agency or plotted its demise, a move that could precipitate a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

The most recent Israeli threats against UNRWA include an attack by Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, that blamed the Agency for perpetuating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  In conjunction with a PR firm and the right-wing, US-based StandWithUs organization, Ayalon has created a series of videos on Youtube that attempt to promote Israel’s image and spin the history of the conflict.  His most recent video is on Palestinian refugees.  Ayalon proposes that UNRWA be dismantled and blames it for prolonging the refugee issue and the conflict.  Instead, he proposes that Palestinian refugees be placed under the UNHCR’s mandate.  In fact, however, the primary reason why UNRWA still exists is due to Israel’s consistent rejection of UN General Assembly resolution 194 (III) calling for the right of refugees to return and compensation.

There would be no need for UNRWA at all if the refugees were granted their right of return. Indeed, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, which had not included any reference to resolution 194 (III), UNRWA began preparations for its own dissolution, creating anxiety among refugees – a process that was reversed due to Oslo’s utter failure.

Due to the political impasse, UNRWA continues to provide assistance and relief to the refugees. When the Agency started working in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services (as the descendants of the original Palestine refugees are also eligible for registration.)

A peaceful solution has been made impossible by Israel’s continued expansion on Palestinian land and its illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, as well as its repeated bombardment of Gaza and unlawful blockade. Israel’s serpent-like Separation Wall swallows more land, hundreds of checkpoints restrict movement, and an expanding apparatus of laws and regulations make a “normal Palestinian everyday life” out of the question. This repressive apparatus increases the dependence of refugees on UNRWA’s meager aid, while at the same time creating even more refugees and internally displaced persons.

The Israeli Government has failed to make the Palestinians disappear, despite several plans and attempts that preceded the establishment of Israel in 1948 and continue to this day. It is now proposing that UNRWA should be dismantled, falsely claiming that it is the Agency that keeps the Palestinian struggle alive, not the Israeli military occupation and repression. Israel hoped UNRWA would help the refugees fade away into the Arab world. Instead, the Palestinians have continued to strive for justice, while the Agency has served as a constant reminder at the international level, and to the Palestinians, that an original sin and an injustice were committed in 1948.

UNRWA does face internal challenges and ambiguities resulting from its multi-faceted connections and conflicting interests; for example, those of its major donor the United States, which generally adopts the Israeli position in regards to the refugee issue, while Palestinian aspirations are to return to their homeland. Moreover, UNRWA, as a UN organization, is bound by UN resolutions, including 194(III), but depends on these donors to operate. Yet the Agency has co-existed with Palestinian refugees for over six decades, acting as a reservoir of memory and holding thousands of documents attesting to the Palestinian historical tragedy.

Israeli calls to withdraw funds to the Agency or even dismantle it should cause concern. Sadly, today the Palestinian leadership no longer has the unity and therefore the clout it had in earlier times, when it could both hold UNRWA accountable and defend it from external assaults. It is distracted by its diplomatic activities and the schism between Hamas and Fatah that shows no signs of abating.

What would the world do if Israel, or indeed any of the Arab countries, were to dismantle UNRWA? Refugees have come to regard it as the symbol of their rights; it is also a source of livelihood for many of the most impoverished among them. Palestinians should safeguard this legacy to ensure that the Agency, its identity and mission, will not be hijacked by those who caused their displacement.

Randa Farah is a policy advisor of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and an Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario who has written widely on Palestinian, Sahrawi, and other refugee communities. Read other articles by Randa.