The UN has a role in maintaining the permanent status of Palestinian refugees

Ramona Wadi

Middle East Monitor  /  June 28, 2022

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) may well be operating with a permanent financial deficit. UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini warned again recently that after September, its 28,000 workers might not receive their salaries as the agency is facing a $100 million shortage for this year.

“We are expected to provide government-like services to one of the most destitute communities in the region, but we are funded like an NGO because we depend completely on voluntary contributions,” explained Lazzarini after the donor conference last week where pledges of $160 million were made. Nevertheless, it will still be operating with a deficit.

Israel, meanwhile, is still lobbying relentlessly against donor countries funding UNRWA. As the agency looks towards September and the start of another academic year, Israel will once again scrutinize its school textbooks. After almost convincing the EU to make its financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority conditional upon a complete review of Palestinian textbooks — in order to remove alleged “incitement” against the occupation state — Israel will not relent on its preferred target of UNRWA and all of the essential services that it provides to refugees. Close down UNRWA, believes Israel, and the refugee issue will no longer exist.

Targeting Palestinian education is something that the Israeli government has done regularly in terms of its settler-colonial violence. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Israel destroyed education facilities in Gaza. With regard to UNRWA, Israel targets school textbooks or teachers who allegedly “support terrorism and murdering Jews,” as the Israeli Ambassador to the UN claimed recently.

Not only is UNRWA dependent on voluntary contributions to help refugees, but it is also, paradoxically, part of the political structure that is concerned primarily with maintaining Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine and the creation of the refugee issue in the first place. The agency’s mandate, which stipulates its role until Palestinian refugees are allowed to fulfil their legitimate right to return to their land, has become a permanent fixture in response to a political problem created by the UN’s support for the Zionist colonization process. With no political will to assert the right of Palestinian refugees to return, the UN’s purported solution was to create a permanent humanitarian agenda which is rendering itself unfeasible. Without UNRWA, Palestinian refugees will lose access to basic services. With the agency’s involvement, Palestinian refugees are guaranteed survival under very dire circumstances. In both instances, however, Palestinians are stripped of their political rights. Funding UNRWA, therefore, is not a guarantee of the international community coming together with a plan to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.

The agency itself is not without bias; it signed the US-UNRWA Framework for Cooperation in 2021, which forces it to comply with US designations of neutrality. Of course, Israel stands behind the US on this matter. So while the agency claims to have no involvement in politics, it cannot step away from the shackles that are part of what sustains its mandate and what allows the US to place conditions on the agency in return for funding. The truth is that UNRWA also serves as a veneer for the sham effort by the UN in terms of finding a solution for the Palestinian refugees’ return.

“Investing in UNRWA means investing for stability to the region,” US Secretary General Antonio Guterres said at the donor conference. “And it means honouring the commitment of the international community to Palestine refugees and their rights until a just and durable political solution is found.” Guterres sounds better when he says nothing at all; investing in UNRWA is not about the international community, but about the Palestinian refugees which the international community have always failed to protect. Is it any wonder that they remain trapped in the humanitarian paradigm created by the UN, when donations are lauded as purported proof of an honourable commitment which is non-existent?

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger; her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America