UNRWA’s mandate ends only after return of Palestinian refugees

First published by the Arab Weekly on 28/1/2018

UNRWA’s highly recognisable logo, at least to Palestinians, adorns schools, hospitals and offices run by the organisation wherever the refugees live.
Heavy blow. Palestinian refugees collect aid parcels at a UN food distribution centre in Rafah, on January 21.(AFP)
Heavy blow. Palestinian refugees collect aid parcels at a UN food distribution centre in Rafah, on January 21.(AFP)

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.

The Palestinian leadership must embrace the Conference for Palestinians Abroad

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 6/3/2017

In my last article for MEMO, I wondered whether the Conference for Palestinians Abroad (CPA) could lead to Palestinian unity of vision. It was a privilege to be with an estimated 6,000 Palestinians from 50 countries in Istanbul for the conference, which took place on 25 and 26 February, both as a founding member and to test that question.

The dates are important because I believe that the launch of this conference will mark a milestone in the Palestinian struggle for justice, freedom, equality and the restoration of our rights. The 26 February will forever by the day when Palestinians who live outside Palestine and who are refused the right to return to their homeland said loud and clear that enough is enough. We will no longer be sidelined or ignored, either by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO, our non-representative representative); Israel (the cause of our catastrophe); or those in the “international community” who had a hand in our dispossession and expulsion from our homeland by Zionist terrorists in 1948 and who continue to deny us our rights to this day.

The unequivocal message from Istanbul was that the Palestinians will not give up their right to return to the places from which we were ethnically cleansed. This was exemplified by Palestinian poet Mohammed Abu Daya who brought his original title deeds to the conference and after a moving speech handed them to one of his many grandchildren, imploring him to commit to returning, and receiving a promise from him that he will struggle to return to that very plot of land one day. Some may see this as unrealistic and theatrical. However, that would be to misunderstand the core Palestinian issue. The struggle has always been about Palestinian refugees returning to their homes instead of languishing in the diaspora, whatever political structure exists in historic Palestine.

Reaffirming the right of return was at the heart of the conference but the final statement also reaffirmed the commitment by Palestinians in involuntary exile to liberate Palestine from the “river to the sea”. Such language is usually mistranslated by Zionists to mean the destruction of Israel and “throwing the Jews into the sea”. That is pure propaganda from Zionists who, by the way, happen to believe that the Palestinians must be thrown out of their own land for there to be a truly Jewish state west of the River Jordan.

They are forever looking for means to achieve this, claiming that “Jordan is the Palestinian state” or that a state can be created in the Sinai to which the Palestinians in “Judea and Samaria” (the occupied West Bank) can be sent, by force if necessary. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has no qualms about claiming the whole of historic Palestine for Israel. “We need to return to the basic truth of our rights to this country,” she believes. “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.”

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, buoyed by Donald Trump being in the White House, claims that there will not be a Palestinian state. Indeed, the far-right Bennett has called for the annexation of most of the illegally-occupied West Bank, starting with the illegal colony-settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, and bringing it under Israeli “sovereignty”.

Standing next to Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placed two conditions that must be met before “peace”: The Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state and, “Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River.” The latter is de facto Israeli sovereignty over historic Palestine from the river to the sea. While he has not explicitly called for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, Israel would continue to rule over an occupied people for ever, making their lives so miserable under the pretext of security that they would leave of their own accord. In Zionist terminology, this is known as “silent transfer” and it is very much part of Israel’s strategy for a Palestinian-free land.

None of the above inflammatory statements by the most senior Israeli ministers has been condemned by any member of the so called international community. It seems that Western governments are happy for Zionist Israelis to claim the whole of historic Palestine as theirs, but not for the Palestinians whose land it is to do so. If modern day Zionists with no real connection to historic Palestine can lay claim to the whole land on the basis of what they claim to be a Biblical legacy, then surely Palestinians have every right to lay claim to their homeland, which they inhabited prior to Israel’s creation was forced upon them and from which they were expelled over the past 70 years.

I must stress that I did not get any impression from the CPA that liberating Palestine would necessitate or result in the mass expulsion of Jews, unlike the mass expulsion of Palestinians which took place in 1948. The conference focused on the emergence of a just political solution with the right for Palestinian refugees to return at its heart. Had I detected any sense of the former at the conference, I would certainly have withdrawn.

The failure of the two-state solution demonstrates the need for creative thinking to meet the needs of those who truly wish to coexist in historic Palestine. A solution is needed which would end separation. There should be no racist settlements built only for Jews or a new town built only for non-Jews. The solution must allow all who inhabit historic Palestine to live in peace wherever they desire. It should allow those refugees in Gaza, Jenin, Syria, Brazil, Europe and elsewhere to return to their land and homes. A reconciliation commission would need to be set up to deal with the details where the reclamation of exact sites is not physically possible.

Following the Trump-Netanyahu press conference in Washington, the Palestinian leadership’s 24-year long negotiations strategy — the charade of the peace process since signing the catastrophic Oslo accords — has collapsed. The PLO has been almost silent since that 15 February media circus, apart from calling for the international community not to abandon the two-state solution, bringing new meaning to the term “flogging a dead horse”.

It is time for fresh thinking that can strengthen the hand of a future, democratically-elected Palestinian leadership. The 6.3 million Palestinians abroad can play a vital role in shaping this. However, in the absence of a clear plan by the PLO to revitalise diaspora input, the CPA is the only game in town. The outcome of the conference was a commitment to continue to build both the new institution and Palestinian community, as well as lobby organisations abroad.

What is needed for this to materialise is for every Palestinian outside the borders of their homeland to make a commitment for contributions to the struggle in his or her adopted country. They should be knocking on the doors of their local decision-makers, lobbying for a just solution. They should take a more active part in the political system through joining political parties and standing for both local and national elections. They should be supporting and joining local solidarity groups, both as activists and donors. They should be forming alliances with other human rights groups and Jewish groups committed to justice for Palestinians. They should raise their voices in the media, locally and nationally, using articulate and convincing speakers and writers. They should also be knocking on the door of the PLO leadership in support of the CPA to ensure that the message is received and it is understood that they will no longer accept being ignored.

The CPA needs to find a sustainable way to continue to function long into the future. For that, it will need to widen its membership base in order to put to bed accusations that it is led by one group. The more community organisations which join, bringing together the widest possible spectrum of Palestinian views, the more representative the CPA will be. In turn, the more effective that the CPA is, the louder will be the call to the PLO to wake up and respond to that half of the constituency that it is meant to serve but which it has ignored since 1993. It can take strength from blessing the CPA, working to encourage Palestinians abroad to join it and developing appropriate links to it, leading to elections for the Palestine National Council, the people’s parliament.

Can the PLO rise to this challenge, as it must? Can its necessary reform include true representation for Palestinians abroad? Not only do they hope that it can, but all Palestinians would also want this. Fulfilling its responsibility would strengthen its hand in uniting and representing the Palestinian people and seeking a just solution for them. Ignoring or smearing the CPA will only add to the PLO’s own weakness, bringing it to the point of irrelevance. No Palestinian would want that to happen or for it to be interpreted as a desired outcome of the gathering of 6,000 Palestinians in Istanbul last month.

Jews migrating to Israel should go via Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon

Jews migrating to Israel should go via Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon

This first appeared on the Middle East Monitor on 1 February 2016

Every year, Israel announces proudly that more Jews have made “aliyah”, the Hebrew term for Jewish migration from the “Diaspora” to the “Land of Israel”. In 2014, 26,500 made the journey, a 10-year high. They do this under the Law of Return, which was introduced in 1950. It is a racist law which gives Jews with no connection to historic Palestine the “right” to move to Israel, to settle and to develop a new life. Non-Jews do not have the same right under the law; Palestinians who were driven out of their homes in 1948 and 1967 (in a process carrying on to this day) do not have the same opportunity to return, even though this is guaranteed by international law. The Palestinian right of return is enshrined in law and is the subject of the much referred to UN General Assembly resolution 194.

The process for making aliyah is made relatively simple. A quick visit to the Jewish Agency website provides a comprehensive guide. The site provides a great deal of information and a consultant is allocated to help applicants to get a visa at their local Israeli consulate and a free one way ticket to Tel Aviv. The site advises applicants to learn Hebrew to make it easier “to make Israeli friends”. It omits to mention that 20 per cent of all Israelis are Palestinians and therefore Arabic would make it easier to make friends too.

Applicants are advised that they may be required to serve in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and that if they are migrating alone they are eligible for special assistance as a “Lone Soldier”. Information on housing, education, health and finding a job is also presented helpfully. There is a special section for 18-35 year olds called “Customised Connections”, outlining “absorption programmes”. The site also points out that upon arrival a cash payment will be made and financial assistance for six months will be deposited in a bank account once the migrant opens one.

What is missing from this guidance to Jewish migrants is any context in relation to the non-Jews who live in Israel, the Palestinians in the occupied territories or the refugees who continue to languish in refugee camps across the Arab world; or, indeed, details of the wider Palestinian Diaspora. While there is some historical information about the Arab/Israeli conflict on the aliyah site, there is no reference to it in the guidance to new immigrants. There is not even a section which describes “Israel today” which could outline the reality on the ground to help potential immigrants make up their minds objectively about the important decision to migrate. Potential immigrants to Israel could be excused for deducing that they are planning to move to a normal country which is only inhabited by Jews and that there are no problems apart from finding a home, schools and a medical centre. The reality is that immigrants will be moving to a state which was created through violence and terror and continues to exist through violence and terror. Reference to serving in the IDF should include a health warning that they are likely to enforce the occupation through oppression and on some occasions to kill members of the indigenous population whose land is being colonised and developed illegally for their benefit.

In recent years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called repeatedly on French Jews in particular to make aliyah. Apart from this being unnecessary interference in another state’s domestic affairs, French Jews who heed his call do so without understanding the background sufficiently and on the false pretence that Israel is a “safer” place for them than their home country, France.

Whether from France or other countries, those considering migration to Israel should be exposed to the impact that the creation of Israel has had on the indigenous population. They should be provided with the opportunity to look Palestinian refugees in the eye, listen to their stories and understand that the state they are moving to continues to ban Palestinians from returning home, in contravention of international law. They should hear how the refugees, their fathers and grandfathers were terrorised into leaving their homes in 1948 and witness the conditions that they live in to this day. Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon would provide a wonderful and informative excursion. Not only will potential migrants meet refugees who have lived in Lebanon since 1948 but their brothers and sisters from Yarmouk and other refugee camps in Syria. Making such a trip is possible as all those who would make it already hold passports — from their home countries — that would admit them to Lebanon.

The situation facing the refugees is described thoroughly in the Palestinian Return Centre’sreport: ‘The “Forgotten People”: Assessing Poverty Among Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. It describes an ever worsening situation which has resulted in 160,000 refugees being categorised as poor or very poor. The already desperate situation has worsened significantly as first Syrian refugees and then Palestinian refugees from Syria fled their homes in search of a safe environment. It is ironic that Lebanon’s existing refugees have become hosts to Syria’s refugees.

A few days spent at one of the twelve official UN refugee camps in Lebanon would be extremely informative to those considering aliyah. They can take their pick from Burj El-Barajneh, Ain Al-Hilweh or the infamous Sabra and Shatila, or maybe one of the growing “informal gatherings” of refugees across the country. After hearing the heart-rending stories of expulsion and dispossession, how would they then justify moving to live where the refugees and their families actually came from? If they eventually move to Israel, how will they feel as they drive through a landscape that was changed deliberately to hide the destroyed villages which were once home to the Palestinians they met in Lebanon? How will they feel about serving in an army that exists to oppress other refugees in the West Bank and to attack Gaza regularly, where the population is 80 per cent refugees, in order for Jews to be able to live in comfort in Israel?

As the search for the elusive breakthrough in the conflict continues, those selling the idea of the life-changing experience that aliyah to Israel provides for Jews should also offer them the opportunity to see for themselves the life changing reality that the creation of Israel had and continues to have on an entire people. It has been catastrophic.

Professor Kamel Hawwash is a British Palestinian engineering academic based at the University of Birmingham. He is a commentator on Middle East affairs and is Vice Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He writes here in a personal capacity.

From Berlin, on the Palestinians in Europe Conference  

  
I spent the day (25 April, 2015) at the 13th Palestinians in Europe Conference in Berlin, Germany. This was my first experience of this major event. The organisers informed us that over 10,000, mostly Palestinians, had attended the day long event.

  
The conference was jointly organised by the Palestinian Community of Germany and the UK based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC).

The ‘Jewish Community’ in Germany and pro Israel groups had lobbied for the Conference to be banned. Calling themselves ‘Berlin against Hamas’ the group planned to picket the Conference. I must say that I saw no protest and did not hear of a protest. 

Calling the conference a pro-Hamas event is way off the mark. I attended most of it, listened to the speeches and enjoyed the Palestinian culture offered through music, sing and dance by young Palestinian groups from across Europe. 

A more accurate description of the event is a pro Palestinian rights and Right of Return Conference. Since the Palestinians have rights and the refugees have a Right of Return enshrined in Inational Law, the Conference was calling for a moral stand on these and for the International Community to support their attainment.

In my view the ‘Berlin Against Hamas Group’ are an extremist group that is against legal Palestinian rights, and for the continuation of Israel breaking of International Law. They are therefore holding the lowest moral ground possible. 

Their frustration is that the Palestinians are organised, the communities across Europe are connected and that Palestinians just will not go away.

The Conference received a speech by President Erdogan of Turkey, delivered on his behalf, which supported Palestinian rights. He called on countries that do not currently recognise Palestine to do so with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Dr Mustafa Barghouthi, General Secretary of the Palestinian Initiative and a member of the Palestinian Legeslative Council addressed the meeting. He is certainly no extremist. He called for unity and reminded the conference that the Palestinians are still here fighting for their rights and especially for their freedom. “Oslo was dead”, he claimed, “Israel has killed it”. He called for an escalation of the popular, peaceful resistance against the occupation and called on Palestinians in Europe to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He also called on Palestinians with European passports to visit Palestine, to connect and to support.

  

Parliamentarians from the UK, Ireland, and Germany addressed the conference as did the Justice  Minister of Morocco.

Amongst the audience were Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. Their plight and that of those that remain was uppermost in the minds of speakers and attendees.  When the speech of the Palestinian Ambassador to Germany was delivered by a representative, he was heckled. This was an expression of anger at the perceived lack of action by the Palestinian Authority to end the suffering of Yarmouk. The speaker delivered the speech and left immediately. 

During the conference news was received of the murder by the Israeli IDF of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem and then another in Hebron. Both reminders of the deadly oppression the Palestinians live under  on a daily basis.

Historically, this Conference has been organised by Palestinians not aligned with Fatah or the PA. However, my overall impression was that while this was the case here, it was a very welcoming event for all Palestinians in Europe and indeed from refugee camps all over the world.

It provides, a now annual focus, for Palestinians from different countries in Europe to meet and connect. The sight of troup after troup of young Palestinians, most of whom had never been to Palestine performing the Dabka, brought tears to my eyes. They know their roots and Palestinian culture lives on. They will pass it to their children. The conference primarily reaffirms the Palestinian people’s absolute determination to exercise their Right of Return.

  

David Ben Gorion is alleged to have said of Palestinian refugees “the old will die and the young will forget’. That the old would die was inevitable but the 13th Palestinians in Europe Conference shows unequivocally, that the young have not forgotten. He will be turning in his grave.

Update 26/4/2015

The Jerusalem Post reports that the ‘Berlin Against Hamas’ Group held a protest outside the venue. In it there is a reference to BDS being a pro Hamas movement. This is a complete lie. The BDS call came from over one hundred civil society organisations in Palestine. Support for it is support for Palestinuan rights and sgainst Israeli occupation and oppression.