First published by the Arab Weekly on 28/1/2018
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established in 1949. It supports more than 5 million registered Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 Palestine war as well as those who suffered a similar plight during and following the 1967 Six Day War and their descendants.
A Palestinian refugee is defined as any person whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period June 1, 1946, to May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict” and descendants of fathers fulfilling this definition.
In 1951 UNRWA’s list of refugees totalled 860,000 names.
UNRWA’s highly recognisable logo — at least to Palestinians — adorns schools, hospitals and offices run by the organisation wherever the refugees live. This is mainly in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN members.
The agency has faced a shortfall in its funding for many years. In 2014 its expenditure was $675 million but its cash deficit stood at $65 million. Funding is generally not keeping pace with increased refugee needs and uptake of services.
UNRWA has operated largely outside politics, focusing on providing services to those Palestinians who are the weakest and neediest of the almost 13 million Palestinians. Its services in the besieged Gaza Strip and the refugee camps in Lebanon, which have absorbed many Palestinians who fled the fighting in Syria, are particularly critical.
Israel has argued for decades that UNRWA’s mandate should only have extended to those Palestinians alive since their expulsion in 1948 and not to their descendants. This view has not been shared by the rest of the world as the United Nations and donors have continued to fund it while a solution is sought to the Palestine question.
This was until the US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Hayley announced that American funding for UNRWA would be curtailed until the Palestinians “returned to the negotiating table with Israel.” The Trump administration said it would cut $65 million from its contribution to UNRWA. The agency reported it received more than $350 million from the United States in 2017.
This decision came hot on the heels of US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It clearly emboldened Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who said: “I fully agree with President [Donald] Trump’s strong criticism of UNRWA.”
Netanyahu claimed, “UNRWA is an organisation that perpetuates the problem of the Palestinian refugees.”
“It also perpetuates the narrative of the so-called ‘right of return’ with the aim of eliminating the state of Israel and therefore UNRWA must disappear,” Netanyahu said.
In other words, Netanyahu wants to take the issue of the refugees off the table.
Reaction to the US cut in UNRWA’s funding from other stakeholders in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was swift. Belgium and the Netherlands promised to make up much of the deficit with $23.3 million and $15 million, respectively.
UNRWA regularly makes appeals for funding.
Its most recent statement said: “Dramatic reduction of US funding will have the huge impact on the daily lives of millions of vulnerable Palestine refugees: Today more than ever before, Palestine refugees need you to stand with them and show solidarity.”
It went on to say: “Together, we must keep schools open for half a million children, provide food and cash assistance to 1.7 million impoverished refugees and life-saving medical care to millions more.”
Palestinian refugees rely heavily on the services of the UNRWA, particularly in the Gaza Strip, which has been under siege for almost 11 years. A reduction in the level of services would have severe consequences for the refugees. Closure of UNRWA would be disastrous both in terms of the immediate effects on Palestinians and the future of the refugees.
UN General Assembly Resolution 194 was very clear about what should happen to them when it stated “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.”
If Israel and the United States want to end the mandate of the UNRWA, then Resolution 194 must be implemented in full. Until then and while they remain so, refugees are entitled to having the protection and support the agency provides and for which the world has and must continue to pay.
If Israel and the United States want to end the mandate of the UNRWA, then Resolution 194 must be implemented in full.