UNRWA: an agency neglected to forget about its mission
Andrea Glioti 11 March 2013

Out of more than nine million Palestinian refugees worldwide, around five million are registered under the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the PA. According to the UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee, besides the original residents of Palestine between 1 June 1946 and 15 May 1948, all the descendants of Palestinian refugee males are entitled to receive its services. Palestinians refugees still dream of returning to their homeland and this right is sanctioned by UNGAR 194 (III).

At odds with these aspirations, during an interview with an Israeli TV channel last November, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the official representative of all Palestinians for the international community (i.e., the West), Mahmud ‘Abbas Abu Mazen, denied his right to live in Safed, the native village he had to leave after the establishment of Israel in 1948. The declarations of ‘Abbas predictably sparked off indignation among Palestinians, since the descendants of those who fled the ’48 territories refuse categorically any resettlement in the PA. “The right of return doesn’t mean being resettled in Gaza or the West Bank,” affirms Yahya, a young refugee from Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp, originally from Acre, “it’s not only a struggle for ourselves, we are also defending the right of return of our sons.”

Palestinian activists and academics understand Abu Mazen’s position in line with the Oslo Accords, which resulted in the marginalization of refugees and cuts on the UNRWA budget. The current outlook is particularly bleak, taking in consideration the massive inflow of Palestinian refugees coming from war-ravaged Syria into Lebanon. Until February 19,2013, 30.000 Palestinians crossed the Lebanese border from Syria; speaking at a meeting of the Syrian Humanitarian Forum in Geneva, the UNRWA General Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, denounced that half of the 500.000 Palestinians living in Syria had to flee their homes. The crisis is intertwined with the marginalization of Palestinian refugees, as a consequence of ‘Abbas’ appeals to the UN to direct Palestinians from Syria to the PA and the renunciation to their right of return to the ’48 territories Israel has allegedly required to accept this. The head of the PA seems to have temporarily rejected this plan, but there is already enough evidence of his willingness to negotiate on the right of return.

Any resettlement of ‘48 Palestinian refugees within the UNRWA’s territories, thus including also the PA, implies a crucial role for the agency. However, the UNRWA appears financially neglected, subject to Western political agendas and actively involved in the marginalization of the right of return.

Over the last two decades, the agency saw its budget drastically reduced. UNRWA’s website states that “at the end of April 2012 the agency’s cash deficit stood at USD 69.4 million and the average annual spending per refugee has fallen from about $200 in 1975 to around $110 today.” While facing a crisis started in the first half of 2012, the UNRWA could not afford to pay the rents of those Palestinians, who fled Syria to settle in the Lebanese refugee camps: only on February 25, a 2.5 million euros agreement has been reached between the EU and UNRWA to shelter in Lebanon Palestinian refugees from Syria (“The contribution to Lebanon is part of a total amount of 7.5 million to UNRWA to assist the most vulnerable Palestine refugees in Syria and those refugees who have fled Syria to Lebanon.”).

In a wider picture, the lack of funds is ascribed to the marginalization of the right of return ensued from Oslo. “The right of return has been already put on the backburner by Oslo,” maintains the American activist of Palestinian descendants,  Jacqueline Husary, “the focus has always been on creating a State.”After the Accords, as pointed out by the Oxford professor and former PLO representative, Karma Nabulsi, in her Civitas Report (2006), Palestinians ‘inside [Gaza and the West Bank] received considerable international funding, whilst the political and civic aspirations of those living outside […] were ignored, […] at best they were classified as objects of humanitarian relief.’

Quite predictably, Palestinian authorities hold a completely different view on the relations between the peace process and the condition of refugees. “A peaceful settlement with Israel would empower the Palestinian State to negotiate a solution on refugees,” affirms the UN Palestinian ambassador, Ibrahim Khraishi, “the last talks between Olmert and Abbas [N/A: 2008] proceeded on the right path to agree on compensations and allow the return of some refugees.” On the contrary, this was a partial renouncement to the right of return and Olmert actually wrote in his memoirs that the proposal to take into Israel an annual quota of 1.000 refugees for five years was actually rejected by ‘Abbas.

Moreover, it goes hardly unnoticed that Oslo and the UNRWA share the same Western sponsors:  according to the agency’s website, until the last year, Europe and the US contributed to 42% of UNRWA core program budget. In January 2010, the Canadian treasury, which accounts for 11% of UNRWA’s funding, decided to withhold its support to the agency: it was announced that donations would have been reallocated to projects administered by the PA in ‘alignment with Canadian values regarding democracy, equality and safeguarding Israel’s security.’ Such a move has been understood by conservative pro-Israeli organizations as motivated with the disagreement on UNRWA’s employment of Hamas supporters. The last attack on UNRWA came from the US Congress in May 2012, when a distinction between 1948 refugees and their descendants has been proposed to “shrink” UNRWA’s definition of Palestine refugees.

Although ensuring the return has never been the agency’s mission – it was the goal of the currently inactive UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) – UNRWA was supposed to cooperate with UNCCP and even its foundational resolution (UNGAR 302 (IV)) confirmed the right of return sanctioned in UNGAR 194 (III). According to its mandate, the agency was originally created as a “temporary” solution to the plight of Palestinians, but its activities are motivated 60 years later with the pending ‘just resolution to the question of the Palestine refugees.’ “What is a just resolution?” asks sardonically the Palestinian researcher Mahmud al-‘Ali, who works for the Lebanon-based NGO (‘Aidun), “it means that, to gain support, UNRWA started supporting  the peace process and the focus on the development of the Palestinian Authority.”