Palestinians are justifiably worried that the mandate granted to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, might be coming to an end. Its mission, which has been in effect since 1949, has not only been to provide urgent aid and support to millions of refugees. It is also a political platform that protects and preserves the rights of several generations of Palestinians.
Though UNRWA was not established as a political or legal platform per se, the context of its mandate was largely political, since Palestinians became refugees as a result of military and political events — the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people by Israel and the latter’s refusal to respect the right of return for Palestinians, as enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of Dec. 11, 1948.
UNRWA was established by UNGA Resolution 302 (IV) with “a humanitarian and development mandate to provide assistance and protection to Palestine refugees pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.” Alas, neither a “lasting solution” to the plight of the refugees nor even a political horizon has been achieved. Instead of using this realization as a way to revisit the international community’s failure to bring justice to Palestine and to hold Israel and its US benefactors accountable, it is UNRWA and, by extension, the refugees that are being punished.
In a stern warning on April 24, the head of the political committee at the Palestinian National Council, Saleh Nasser, said that UNRWA’s mandate might be coming to an end. Nasser referenced a statement by Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini about the future of the organization. Lazzarini’s statement, published a day earlier, left room for some interpretation, though it was clear that something fundamental regarding the status, mandate and work of UNRWA was about to change. “We can admit that the current situation is untenable and will inevitably result in the erosion of the quality of the UNRWA services or, worse, to their interruption,” Lazzarini said. Nasser said this was “a prelude to donors stopping their funding for UNRWA.”
The subject of UNRWA’s future is now a priority within the Palestinian and wider Arab political discourse. Any attempts at canceling or redefining UNRWA’s mission will present a serious, unprecedented challenge for the Palestinians. The body provides educational, health and other support for 5.6 million Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. With an annual budget of $1.6 billion, this support — and the massive network that has been created by the organization — cannot easily be replaced.
Equally important is the political nature of the organization. The very existence of UNRWA means that there is a political issue that must be addressed regarding the plight and future of Palestinian refugees. In fact, it is not the mere lack of enthusiasm to finance the organization that has caused the current crisis. It is something bigger and far more sinister.
Any attempts at canceling or redefining UNRWA’s mission will present a serious, unprecedented challenge for the Palestinians.
In June 2018, Jared Kushner, son-in-law and adviser to former US President Donald Trump, visited Amman, where he, according to Foreign Policy magazine, tried to persuade King Abdullah to remove refugee status from 2 million Palestinians living in Jordan. This, along with other attempts, failed.
Three months later, the Trump administration decided to cease its financial support of UNRWA. As the organization’s main funder — about 30 percent of UNRWA’s money came from the US at the time — this decision was devastating. However, UNRWA hobbled along by increasing its reliance on the private sector and individual donations.
Though the Palestinian leadership celebrated the Biden administration’s decision to resume America’s funding of UNRWA in April last year, a caveat in Washington’s move was largely kept secret. The US only agreed to fund UNRWA if it agreed to sign a two-year plan, known as the US-UNRWA Framework for Cooperation. In essence, this effectively turned UNRWA into a platform for Israeli and American policies in Palestine, whereby the UN body consented to US — and thus Israeli — demands to ensure that no aid would reach any Palestinian refugee who had received military training “as a member of the so-called Palestinian Liberation Army” or in other organizations or “has engaged in any act of terrorism.” Moreover, the framework expects UNRWA to monitor “Palestinian curriculum content.”
By entering into an agreement with the US State Department, “UNRWA has effectively transformed itself from a humanitarian agency that provides assistance and relief to Palestinian refugees, to a security agency furthering the security and political agenda of the US, and ultimately Israel,” the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights noted.
Palestinian protests have not changed the new reality, which effectively alters the entire mandate granted to UNRWA by the international community more than 70 years ago. Worse, European countries followed suit when, last September, the European Parliament advanced an amendment that conditioned EU support of UNRWA on the editing of Palestinian school textbooks that supposedly “incite violence” against Israel.
Instead of focusing on shutting down UNRWA immediately, the US, Israel and their supporters are working to change the nature of the organization’s mission, entirely rewriting its original mandate.
An agency that was established to protect the rights of refugees is now expected to protect Israeli, American and Western interests in Palestine.
Though UNRWA was never a perfect organization, it has succeeded in helping millions of Palestinians throughout the years, while preserving the political nature of their plight.
Though the Palestinian Authority, various political factions, Arab governments and others have protested the Israeli-American designs against UNRWA, such moves are unlikely to make much difference considering that UNRWA itself is surrendering to outside pressures. While the Palestinians, Arabs and their allies must continue to fight for UNRWA’s original mission, they must also urgently develop alternative plans and platforms that can shield the refugees and prevent their right of return from becoming marginalized and, eventually, forgotten.
If Palestinian refugees are removed from the list of political priorities concerning the future of a just peace in Palestine, neither justice nor peace can possibly be achieved.
• Ramzy Baroud