Deny you are Palestinian or perish

Palestinian teachers protest in front of the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City (Mohammed Abed - AFP)

Salman Abu Sitta

Middle East Monitor  /  March 14, 2022

“Deny you are Palestinian or Perish.” That is the message presented by UNRWA to Palestinian refugees.  It is an unbelievably shocking message, contrary to international law and contrary to UNRWA’s mandate itself. UNRWA succumbed to US blackmail on behalf of Israel; cutting its funds unless Palestine is erased from books and memory.

This is the revelation we arrived at, after the first encounter with UNRWA schools in Gaza of all places.

In September last year, Palestine Land Society started a competition between high school students in Gaza under the title “This is my village.” The students were required to write an essay about their origins in Palestine, research their roots by asking their parents and grandparents about their villages of origin, how they became refugees during the Nakba (Catastrophe), how they came to be in UNRWA camps and what is their Right of Return. The students should get authentic testimony from their families and neighbours, should do their own research from other sources, should add, if possible, pictures, maps or memorabilia.

Gaza Government schools embraced the idea and let it be known to its students. UNRWA schools forbade the distribution of the invitation leaflets, on instructions from UNRWA foreign staff.

Defying the ban, we asked volunteers to distribute the leaflets to students at school gates. The response was overwhelming. Eighteen hundred students applied. Not surprisingly, the absolute majority were from UNRWA schools.

Four out of the five finalists were refugees from UNRWA schools. At the award ceremony, UNRWA representatives were absent. That was a phenomenal shame.

We distributed Palestine maps to each school, showing the depopulated and the existing villages in Palestine in 1948. Once again, the UNRWA schools refused to receive it upon UNRWA official instructions.

How could UNRWA turn against its mandate and violate international law?

The shy but unconvincing reply was that the US donor, on behalf of Israel, obediently followed by the compliant European Union, prohibited the mention of Palestine’s history and geography, Palestinian towns and villages, the Nakba and the ethnic cleansing, at the pain of cutting funds to UNRWA services.

It was an ugly threat: Deny you are Palestinian or else you will starve or your children will roam the streets without education. Silencing Palestine, denying the war crimes of the Nakba, disavowing your homeland Palestine are the price you have to pay for some food and no identity, perpetually being a refugee. George Orwell will find it difficult to conceive such a scenario, nor for that matter Shakespeare in his Merchant of Venice.

That was enacted in the name of “Neutrality”, in a document named the Framework for Cooperation between the US and UNRWA 2021-2022 (Cooperation Framework), equating the victim and the criminal.

It is understood that this document in its entirety, including the attached annex, constitutes policy commitments by UNRWA and the United States for the calendar years 2021 and 2022.

This Framework does not constitute an international agreement and does not create any legally binding obligations between the participants under either international or domestic laws. UNRWA has no authority to sign it.

We wrote to Philippe Lazzarine, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, pointing this out, and how it is that in UNRWA schools, the child is denied the knowledge of where Majdal, Isdud, Faluja are, and that he should not know the Nakba, the expulsion of his people and the destruction of 500 villages.

This is, indeed, an unprecedented war on the refugees and on Palestinians as a people. It runs against UNRWA’s mandate, which should be carried out, as General Assembly Resolution 302 stipulates, without prejudice to paragraph 11 of Resolution 194.

It is also inconsistent with Article 29(1) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To erase their history and geography by denying or restricting their opportunity and right to learn about their villages of origin, how they became refugees, their right to return and why it is denied, violates each and every of the five sub-paragraphs of Article 29(1) of the Convention.

Moreover, it violates non-discrimination provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination- CERD (articles 5(e)(v)) and comprises an element of apartheid under the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (article 2(c)). The applicability of both conventions to Palestinians has been addressed extensively, as early as the 1980s by UN human rights treaty committees (beginning with CERD), and more recently by ESCWA report and by local and international NGOs reports such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’tselem reports.

The Rome Statute of 1998, the legal foundation of the International Criminal Court, treats as war criminals those aiding and abetting war criminals. Silencing war crimes applies to those. Silencing Palestinian history and geography is, therefore, a war crime.

We also wrote to the Acting Head of UNRWA Education Moritz Bilagher and other officials. It was suggested to us that the Palestine map that we would like to distribute should be titled “Historical Palestine.” This is splitting hairs. To label the map as “Historical Palestine” conflates the distinction between Palestine as a geographic place and Palestine as a state.

Palestine is the home of Palestinians as known for at least 2,000 years. Its people are known as Palestinians worldwide, including in UNRWA records.

Palestine as a state is a political matter; it is not within the terms of UNRWA to decide. Neither Palestine nor Israel as states have generally recognized borders or universal UN member states’ recognition.

The Popular Committees in the refugee camps protested this action in ways no doubt will grow with time. A group of international lawyers are drafting a position paper on the subject which may lead to a petition at the Human Rights Council.

We encourage all concerned to protest US blackmail and UNRWA compliance.

Send your protest to:

UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarine, Lazzarini@unrwa.org

UNRWA Acting/ Head, Education Dpt, Moritz Bilagher, M.bilagher@unrwa.org

UNRWA Head of External Relations, Tamara Alrifai, T.alrifai@unrwa.org

Salman Abu Sitta is a Palestinian researcher; he writes about Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian right of return