UNRWA, the US Embassy move and the Israeli occupation

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 24/4/2018

Gazan's gather outside the UN offices in Gaza to protest US cuts to UNRWA's funding, on January 28, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

Gazan’s gather outside the UN offices in Gaza to protest US cuts to UNRWA’s funding, on January 28, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

This will be remembered as the year when the United States of America broke with the international consensus by moving its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus recognising the Holy City as the capital of Israel. The deliberate timing of the move to coincide with next month’s 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation in historic Palestine —the Nakba (Catastrophe) — has angered Palestinians whose faith in the US as an honest broker in the peace process has always been low but is now non-existent.

Palestinian anger has been fuelled further by the Trump administration’s removal of references to Palestinian land captured by Israel in 1967 as “occupied” from its latest annual human rights report. “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017” broke with previous policy by changing the section on the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine from “Israel and the Occupied Territories” to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza”. At a stroke, the US State Department has removed reference to the occupation of any land taken by force by Israel in 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights.

US threats of aid cuts - Cartoon [Arabi21News]

It is rather ironic that the report still claims: “Our foreign policy reflects who we are and promotes freedom as a matter of principle and interest. We seek to lead other nations by example in promoting just and effective governance based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The United States will continue to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty.”

Such a change runs counter to international law. Washington’s alleged commitment “to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty” can certainly not be seen as applying to the Palestinian people.

This US administration is chipping away shamelessly at the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, which they have demanded for 70 years. Trump claims to have taken Jerusalem off the table, that there is no occupation and that the settlements are no longer referred to as “illegal”. This leaves just one more issue to take off the table, the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 194 in which it resolved that Palestinian “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.”

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There are now 5.5 million Palestinian refugees clinging to this right; the Great March of Return has seen tens of thousands of them marching peacefully to the border area in Gaza to reaffirm it. While they wait for that right to be implemented, they continue to be supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The agency was established in 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for “Palestine refugees in the Near East”. UNRWA began its operations on 1 May 1950 and its services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict. They are delivered in the main countries where the Palestinian refugees continue to live: the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Gaza, UNRWA provides services to refugees who make up 80 per cent of the population.

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN Member States. It also receives some core funding from the regular budget of the United Nations, which is used mostly for international staffing costs.

READ: UNRWA gets cash injection after US cuts

The agency is facing a funding crisis, exacerbated by the US decision to cut its contribution. In January, the State Department announced that it was withholding $65m out of its $125m interim aid package earmarked for UNRWA stating that “additional US donations would be contingent on major changes” by the agency.

When asked what major changes the US Administration asked of UNRWA to continue its funding, the official spokesman was unable to point to specific requirements. Speaking at a meeting in the British parliament organised by the Palestinian Return Centre, Chris Gunness expressed the agency’s surprise at the defunding given that last November US officials had praised UNRWA’s high impact, accountability and flexibility.

The PRC meeting looked at Britain’s relationship with UNRWA. Gunness praised the government’s ongoing financial support but then set out the problems that the agency is facing, which he described as an “unprecedented financial and existential crisis.” He told the meeting that the Trump administration is actually “defunding UNRWA to the tune of $305 million” having only paid $60m in January when $360m was expected. Despite having already started to procure food and non-food items in the expectation of receiving the full amount from the US, UNRWA was told by the State Department that no more would be forthcoming.

US embassy might be moved to Jerusalem – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Gunness described the scale of UNRWA’s work in numbers: it educates 525,000 children, for example, 270,000 of whom are in Gaza. Its health projects offer 9 million patient consultations a year. It employs 33,000 people, including 22,000 teachers and education staff, the overwhelming majority of whom are refugees themselves; this gives a huge boost to the economy in Palestinian refugee camps. It also supports small-scale projects through micro finance. “UNRWA is not a light bulb you can turn on or off,” insisted Gunness. “You cannot just offer a third of an education to half a million children.”

UNRWA’s resources have been stretched by the crisis in Syria, the spokesman pointed out. Additional needs have been generated by the 150,000 Palestinian refugees who were among more than half a million living in Syria to flee to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.

Gunness warned that even after the recent Rome conference which sought to raise $466 million for UNRWA, only $110m was raised, including $50m from Qatar alone. Although Saudi Arabia subsequently pledged another $50 million, the agency only has sufficient funds to see it through to July of this year.

The real problem, he said, is the lack of a political solution; this is a conversation that the donor community “is not prepared to have. They seem to believe dialogue about reform somehow replaces it, but it does not. Their focus continues to be on how efficient UNRWA is in delivering its services and the rising costs.” The costs are rising, he added, because there has been 70 years of unaddressed dispossession and 50 years of occupation. “That is what drives the bill up. There are more and more refugees because there is an unresolved political plight and the children of refugees have become refugees.” This “protracted refugee situation” also applies to UNHCR.

When asked what would happen to the refugees if UNRWA collapsed, Gunness said, “Palestinian refugees are human beings with rights.” Those rights do not disappear if UNRWA is not around. “Their options will remain as integration wherever they are, third country repatriation or repatriation, which means going home.” He confirmed that the preferred remedy for dealing with refugees by UNHCR is the right of return in that it produces the most stable outcome.

READ: 100 days since Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, the facts

Speaking at the same meeting, Oxford-based Palestinian academic Karma Nabulsi warned that the US defunding of UNRWA is designed to “dismantle it”. Professor Nabulsi argued that UNRWA was created by the UN following the “dismantlement of our country and destruction of our society” under its watch. “It was,” she reminded the audience, “initially meant to exist for 6 months to a year but with the passing of time, it had become ‘stabilised’.”

The current crisis, she insisted, is more extreme than those previously, “because it goes at the heart of who we are as a people and that we are a people.” UNRWA, she said, “is the only institution that recognises our inalienable rights and our status as refugees and the obligation of the UN to uphold those and protect us. Its demise would be like you have wiped us off the face of the earth.”

She contrasted the reaction to Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem with the UNRWA funding cut. There was pushback by the international community, including the UN Security Council and the General Assembly, against the embassy move. “The attack on UNRWA, however, has happened very quietly. Not many people understand it or see how important it is.”

Nabulsi reminded the audience that the US Embassy move, the siege on Gaza and other Israeli policies are classic settler-colonialism, which the Palestinians have experienced for a century. “Colonialism displaces the people and sets up a new country instead. It is a process not an event.”

Nevertheless, Professor Nabulsi finished by sharing a reason for optimism. “Because it is an ongoing event, we have a chance to stop it,” she pointed out. “It is not over.”

Israel, the West and shameless hypocrisy

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 20/3/2018

UK British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson [Financial Times/Flickr]

The current crisis between Britain and Russia offers yet another example of the shameless hypocrisy of the West when dealing with Israel and almost any other country. Why bring Israel into the attempted murder of two people on the streets of Britain in which Russia, not Israel is implicated? I do so because of the sudden regard for international law that has resurfaced in Western political circles.

Speaking alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson accused Russia of using military-grade nerve agent and stated that the two were clear, “that the use of such agent is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a flagrant breach of international law.” A day earlier, he claimed on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Russia had been in breach of international law for the past 10 years because it had been stockpiling nerve agent during that period. Conservative Party chairman Brendan Lewis, speaking on Peston on Sunday, also referred to Russia’s action as being in breach of international law.

Johnson was backed by the EU’s Foreign Ministers who adopted a statement of support for Britain. “Any such use [of nerve agent] is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a breach of international law and undermines the rules-based international order,” they said.

Shortly after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the US, France, Germany and Britain issued a joint statement condemning the attack, which took place in the small English city of Salisbury: “It is an assault on UK sovereignty, and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the chemical weapons convention and a breach of international law.”

Accusations that Russia has been in breach of international law have in the past related to its action against the Ukraine and what the West sees as its occupation of Crimea, which Russia disputes. In March 2017, the US Mission in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that, “The United States remains deeply concerned about ongoing Russian violations of international law and defiance of OSCE principles and commitments in Crimea.”

The statement further accused the Russian occupation authorities of “continuing to commit serious abuses against Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and all others who oppose Russia’s occupation of the peninsula.”

When the late Saddam Hussein sent his troops into Kuwait in 1990, the international community only allowed that occupation to stand for seven months. The Iraqi dictator had annexed Kuwait, declaring it to be his country’s 19th province. However, a coalition of forces from 35 countries was formed to free Kuwait, which ejected the Iraqis in early 1991. No one then talked of the Kuwaiti resistance against Iraq’s occupation as “terrorism”.

Both Iraq and Russia faced sanctions for what the international community regarded as illegal acts in Kuwait and Ukraine respectively. There is talk now about further sanctions against Russia following the attack in Salisbury. There are even calls for the English football team to boycott the FIFA World Cup, due to take place in Russia this summer. Responding to a question in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson told fellow MPs that if Russia is implicated then he thought it would be “difficult to see how UK representation at the World Cup can go ahead in the normal way.”

Some in the West are questioning how Russia can continue to hold a seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which allows it to wield a veto whenever it chooses. This, it is argued, means it can vote down any resolution that criticises Moscow or its allies, or even considers imposing sanctions on, say, the Syrian government for its actions.

Here, then, is the hypocrisy of the West, which seems hell-bent on singling Israel out for exceptional protection from criticism or meaningful sanctions despite its 50-year long illegal occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese land, and its 70-year ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Just like Russia and Iraq, Israel has annexed illegally-occupied land, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The US has been severely critical of Russia for its use of the veto when it comes to Syria and Iran. In 2015, the then US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, claimed that Russian vetoes were “putting the UN Security Council’s legitimacy at risk.” Her successor Nikki Hayley even threatened that if Russia continues to use its veto then the US may have to take unilateral action against Iran. This was after Russia vetoed a resolution that had been watered down from a condemnation of Iran for violating an arms embargo on Houthi leaders in Yemen to “noting with particular concern”.The particular hypocrisy of the US lies in its own use of the veto power on 43 occasions in support of Israel, the last of which was against criticism of its own action in recognising Jerusalem as capital of the Zionist state in December last year. This does not include the number of times that the threat of the US using its veto resulted in resolutions not even making it to a Security Council vote, including an attempt by the PLO to secure recognition of Palestine as a state in 2014.

Britain’s hypocrisy can be demonstrated in its support for sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and its support for sanctions against Russia but its absolute refusal to consider sanctioning Israel for any matter, including its illegal colonial-settlement enterprise and alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UK has actually worked to oppose any boycott or sanction against a state that stands accused of Apartheid by an ESCWA report which was sanctioned by the UN but was then taken down under pressure from the US and Israel.

Prominent members of the British government and long-established members of Conservative Friends of Israel work overtime to shield Israel. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, to his utter disgrace, labelled the peaceful and moral Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), designed to pressure Israel to comply with international law, as “anti-Semitic”. Gove has even called for Britain to move its Embassy to Jerusalem in a move that would be against international laws and conventions.

Britain has now indicated that it might not send members of the Royal family to the World Cup in Russia but has announced that Prince William — second in line to the throne — will make an official visit to Israel this year despite its continued illegal occupation of Palestinian land, its illegal annexation of Jerusalem, its Apartheid Wall and its illegal siege on Gaza which has been said to constitute collective punishment and is thus a war crime.

Palestinians and their supporters, therefore, have ample reason to call out the international community for its hypocrisy and double standards when it comes to dealing with Israel, whose illegal actions and breaches of international law have accompanied its whole 70-year existence. Remember this fact the next time that a Western politician defends Israel’s breaches of international law as “acts of self-defence”. It is the only country in the world to which the permanent members of the UN Security Council and others in the West grant such exceptional immunity.

 

El Cuarteto de Oriente Medio aún incluye a Estados Unidos, por lo que puede seguir formando parte del proceso de paz

Publicado por primera vez por el monitor de Oriente el 13/2/2018

Debido a la decisión del presidente estadounidense, Donald Trump, de reconocer a Jerusalén como la capital de Israel y su decisión subsecuente de cortar la financiación americana al UNRWA y a la Autoridad Palestina, el gobierno palestino en Ramala ha anunciado formalmente que Washington no puede seguir actuando como parte del proceso de paz. Mahmoud Abbas se pronunció poco después del anuncio de Trump en diciembre, declarando que los palestinos se habían comprometido con los asesores del presidente para llegar al “acuerdo del siglo”, pero, en su lugar, “recibimos un tremendo golpe.” Concluyó que “Estados Unidos ha elegido perder su papel como mediador… Ya no aceptaremos que forme parte del proceso de paz.”

Llegado a ese punto, el presidente de la Autoridad Palestina (AP) sugirió que la ONU debería asumir el papel de mediador. Sin embargo, la AP lleva buscando desde entonces una alternativa a EE.UU., cuya función se base en reunir a un grupo mayor de países influyentes para supervisar las negociaciones entre palestinos e israelíes.

Israel no se ha pronunciado al respecto, disfrutando de la completa imparcialidad estadounidense a su favor, ya sea por parte de los asesores de Trump, Jason Greenblatt y Jared Kushner, el embajador de EE.UU. a Israel, David Friedman, o la embajadora de EE.UU. en la ONU, Nikki Haley.

Durante su última visita a Israel, el vicepresidente estadounidense, Mike Pence, fue recibido como un héroe cuando se comprometió a desplazar la embajada de EE.UU. de Tel Aviv a Jerusalén antes del fin de 2019. Los palestinos se negaron a recibirle. Trump lo consideró una falta de respeto hacia Pence y hacia los Estados Unidos, y amenazó a la AP con más recortes en la ayuda americana a menos que volvieran a la mesa de negociaciones.

El siguiente recurso del pueblo palestino para buscar un mediador de las conversaciones de paz era la Unión Europea. Abbas visitó hace poco las instalaciones de la Unión Europea (EU) en Bruselas y habló con Federica Mogherini, alta representante de asuntos exteriores y política de seguridad. Si es que Abbas pensaba que la UE estaba dispuesta a asumir un papel significativo en el proceso de paz, acabó decepcionado. Mogherini reiteró las eternas posturas de la UE: “Primero de todo, quiero asegurar al presidente Abbas y a su delegación que la Unión Europea está firmemente comprometida con la solución de dos Estados, con Jerusalén como la capital compartida de ambos… basándose en los Acuerdos de Oslo y en el consenso internacional incorporado en las resoluciones relevantes del Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU.”

Mogherini también reafirmó la oposición de la UE respecto a la “actividad de asentamientos, que consideramos ilegal bajo el derecho internacional.” Le recordó a Abbas que la UE “ya ha invertido bastante en el proyecto de construcción del Estado palestino”, y prometió que el apoyo financiero de la UE continuará, “también para la UNRWA.” No respondió a la petición de Abbas de que la UE reconozca en bloque al Estado de Palestina.

Unos días después, en una conferencia de prensa previa a una reunión extraordinaria del Grupo Internacional de Donantes para Palestina en la sede de la UE, Mogherini declaró ante los periodistas que cualquier marco de negociación debía involucrar a “todas las partes”, enviando un mensaje firme de que Estados Unidos no puede quedar excluido: “Nada sin Estados Unidos, y nada sólo con los Estados Unidos.”

Esto ha supuesto un golpe contra el gobierno palestino, que tenía la esperanza de que los estadounidenses se quedaran a un lado del proceso de paz.

A los palestinos les quedan pocas alternativas. Los intentos de Francia de conseguir un papel más importante en el proceso de paz resultaron en la Conferencia de París, que se celebró bajo unas condiciones mucho más favorables a finales del gobierno de Obama, pero se convirtió en un desastre. La conferencia salió adelante, pero no consiguió mucho.

China  presentó su propuesta de paz con 4 puntos el pasado agosto:

  • Seguir adelante con la solución de dos Estados, basada en las fronteras de 1967, con Jerusalén este como a capital del nuevo Estado palestino.
  • Defender “el concepto de seguridad común, integral, cooperativa y sostenible”, acabando de inmediato con la construcción de asentamientos israelíes, tomando medidas para evitar la violencia contra civiles y pidiendo una reanudación temprana de las conversaciones de paz.
  • Coordinar los esfuerzos internacionales para crear “medidas promotoras de la paz que impliquen una participación conjunta.”
  • Promover la paz mediante el desarrollo y la cooperación entre Palestina e Israel.

Aunque no se ha hablado mucho sobre el potencial de la propuesta desde el año pasado, China intensificó sus esfuerzos por jugar un papel importante en el proceso de paz tras la decisión de Trump sobre Jerusalén. Sin embargo, en respuesta a una pregunta sobre el posible futuro rol de China en una conferencia de prensa el 21 de diciembre, la portavoz del ministerio de Exteriores, Hua Chunying, declaró: “La postura de China respecto al problema palestino es consistente. Respaldamos y promovemos activamente el proceso de paz en Oriente Medio. Apoyamos la causa justa del pueblo palestino para recuperar sus derechos nacionales legítimos… Estamos dispuestos a seguir ofreciendo ayuda constructiva para promover el proceso de paz israelí-palestino.”

China organizó un simposio el pasado diciembre en el que reunieron a representantes del pueblo palestino y el Estado israelí en un intento por resolver el estancamiento. La sesión culminó con la creación de un documento de posición no vinculante conocido como la “Iniciativa de Pekín”, sobre la que Hilk Bar, vicepresidente de la Kneset y de la Unión Sionista, dijo en una declaración conclusiva que pretendía demostrar que “es posible y necesario salir del punto muerto político y animar a los dos gobiernos a volver a la mesa de negociaciones.” Un alto cargo de la delegación palestina añadió: “Tenemos que buscar otro enfoque para el proceso de paz… Debe incluir a las superpotencias y a China; quizá uno de estos países podría jugar un papel importante.”

Los intentos de Rusia, otro miembro del Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU, de asumir un papel líder en el proceso de paz se remontan a muchos años atrás, pero no han tenido éxito.

Hace poco, los palestinos han favorecido un acuerdo que recuerda al P5+1 que desarrolló el Acuerdo Nuclear de Irán, que se concluyó en 2015. El P5+1 se refiere a los 5 miembros permanente del Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU junto a Alemania. Un acuerdo similar podría seguir involucrando a los Estados Unidos, pero sin que monopolicen el marco de las negociaciones.

Un posible punto de partida podría ser el Cuarteto, conocido formalmente como el Cuarteto de Oriente Medio, formado por EE.UU., Rusia, la UE y la ONU. Describe su mandato como “de ayuda para las negociaciones de paz en Oriente Medio y apoyo al desarrollo económico y la construcción de instituciones en Palestina, preparando el eventual Estado.”

A primera vista, el Cuarteto, con una mejora de su equipo, podría ser la respuesta a la demanda palestina de disminuir el papel de Estados Unidos, en lugar de excluir por completo a Washington. Eso podría ayudar a cumplir con la insistencia de Israel de que EE.UU. ha de ser una parte importante de cualquier negociación futura.

El Centro Saban para la Política de Oriente Medio en Brookings evaluó el desempeño del Cuarteto en 2012 en su documento “The Middle East Quartet: A post-Mortem.” Concluyó que, excepto por ciertos logros iniciales hasta 2003, el Cuarteto no ha proporcionado ningún beneficio tangible, a excepción de “asegurar la involucración americana en el proceso de paz.”

Los palestinos podrían solicitar que se añadan ciertos países al grupo para que otorguen prominencia al papel que juegan. Podrían ser Japón, Egipto y China; quizá Reino Unido ahora que abandonará la UE. Dicho de otra forma, podría desarrollarse un formato Q4+, probablemente bajo un liderazgo de la ONU.

La ventaja de este acuerdo, que sería difícil organizar, es que su estructura básica ya existe. Es probable que los palestinos estuvieran de acuerdo con esta formación, pero, casi sin duda, EE.UU. e Israel la rechazarían. Sin embargo, esto demostraría la flexibilidad de Palestina y confirmaría el rechazo general de Estados Unidos e Israel.

Es necesario un marco alternativo para las negociaciones para resolver el conflicto, diferente a los 25 años de conversaciones fútiles dirigidas por los estadounidenses, cuya imparcialidad a favor de Israel está garantizada. Cuanto más tiempo exista el vacío que genera el rechazo palestino a la participación de EE.UU., más tiempo permanecerá el estatus quo, permitiendo a Israel seguir adelante con su proyecto colonial. Merece la pena considerar un Cuarteto renovado.