To the consternation of many, the Trump administration will no longer provide $350 million a year to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, which was founded in 1949. Analysts and pundits argue that this decision will cause more hardship and violence in Gaza and the West Bank, and plunge other areas in the Middle East into unrest.
However, these prophets of UNRWA’s impending doom underestimate its political usefulness. UNRWA is simply too valuable a political asset to fail. Its existence guarantees that the Palestinian question and the contested right of return remain a generational and prioritized political fixture in international forums. Consequently, Arab and other states use the demise of the Palestinians to generate political capital by lambasting Israel for subjugating them and for instigating a “humanitarian disaster” in the Gaza Strip.
Still, the Arab and other states that have left it to the US to shoulder one third of the funding to keep UNRWA afloat since its inception, have a vested political interest in UNRWA. There are already early indications that the EU, Ireland, Jordan and Germany will pledge further support to make up for the budgetary pitfall.
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Much of UNRWA and its backers’ achievement in generating this political capital derives from their strategic interest to maintain the right of return on the international political agenda. The essence of this success is attributable to the championing of the Palestinian refugee. Former UNRWA commissioner-general Karen Abu-Zayed has stated, “Palestine refugees are the focus of the agency’s thinking, planning and activities. Promoting their interests as individuals with rights and entitlements under international law and ensuring their well-being and long-term human development are the engines that will continue to drive all aspects of UNRWA’s activities.”
What is surprising is how UNRWA has ingeniously manipulated the more commonly accepted International Humanitarian Law and the 1951 UNHCR Convention definitions of a refugee to accommodate more permanent provisions to its original, temporary mandate. In the process, it has succeeded in turning a temporary relief mandate into a quasi-governmental and permanent political fixture in the West Bank and Gaza.
MORE IMPORTANTLY, the definition ensures that the number of refugees will continue to grow exponentially and that they will remain under the auspices of UNRWA, and not the UNHCR. This situation has led US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to state that UNRWA’s business model and fiscal practices were an “irredeemably flawed operation,” and that the agency’s “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable.”
The government of Israel also contests the UNRWA definition of refugee, criticizing the partial and discriminate share of attention and services they enjoy under the auspices of the UN. “They have their own set of rules, their own funding and of course, their own international agency – UNRWA, and if this wasn’t enough, their refugee status is transferred to their children.” Furthermore, the government states, “It’s worth noting that when UNRWA was established, its mandate included the task of resettling refugees. But the mandate was amended in 1965 to remove this important function. Today, many of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants do not live in refugee camps. Yet they continue to be counted as refugees by UNRWA and are receiving benefits including free health care and education.”
UNRWA spends one-third of all the resources donated to refugees internationally. Per-capita annual support for a Palestinian refugee is more than twice the amount of support allocated by the UNHCR.
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UNRWA also states that the standards and criteria are intended to facilitate the agency’s operations (that is, not to determine who is a refugee under international law). So even though the agency keeps records of over five million Palestinians whom it refers to as “registered refugees,” it does not mean that under international law there actually are five million Palestine refugees.
UNRWA has in the past issued financial emergency appeals on an almost yearly basis, and will continue to justify these appeals claiming that the refugee numbers will continue to grow. And grow they will. If the “refugee” term remains uncontested, UNRWA will continue to serve as a political springboard for those states which seem to be more interested in using UNRWA to keep the right of return on the international political agenda than they are for meeting the humanitarian needs of its Palestinian beneficiaries.
The writer is a retired lieutenant-colonel, an expert on international aid organizations, and a professor of political science and PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University, where he teaches about humanitarian aid organizations and conflict resolution.
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