By Ramona Wadi
Last November, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) announced that it ran out of funds, with Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini calling for $70 million in aid to ensure the continuation of basic needs and services for Palestinian refugees.
The mismanagement of funds and corruption at the hands of the previous UNRWA administration, combined with the US decision to withdraw funding from the organisation in a bid to alter the definition of what constitutes a Palestinian refugee, together with the crisis generated by COVID-19, are all visible repercussions of what exacerbated UNRWA's financial constraints.
However, the scenario that regularly unfolds is one where the agency pleads for funding in order to support Palestinian refugees, while the UN makes appeals to safeguard UNRWA. Between these two components, the international community successfully evades accountability for the permanence of Palestinian refugees, by allowing Israeli colonisation to continue.
As long as refugees are only discussed within the context of UNRWA or the two-state compromise, both of which do not seek the right of return despite rhetoric attempting to convince otherwise, Palestinian refugees will always be at the mercy of the funding game played by the international community. While Israel is funded to continue its aggression, Palestinian refugees are forced to rely on donations by the same entities supporting and financing Israeli colonisation, and the discrepancies are only increasing.
In December 2019, the UN General Assembly voted to extend UNRWA's mandate until 2023. Pitting the vote against US President Donald Trump's withholding of funding from the agency, the vote was described as a major win. Yet, UNRWA is still struggling to fulfil its mandate, while the Palestinian refugees hold no political sway over their circumstances as recipients of humanitarian aid, and with no tangible opportunities for autonomy.
Where is the victory in voting for a mandate when the international community has not stepped in to fund accordingly? Acting UNRWA Commissioner-General Christian Saunders described the vote as confirming: "The international community's trust in the ability of UNRWA to deliver on the critical mandate of protecting and providing essential services to the millions of refugees under its care." That, however, barely scrapes the surface of the decades-long humanitarian venture that has failed to construct any semblance of Palestinian autonomy.
Behind UNRWA's financial difficulties, not to mention the neutral stance insisted upon by the agency to avoid implicating Israel in the human rights violations it tries to address through humanitarian services, lies the UN's culpability in refusing to recognise the Palestinian right of return as a political right.
If the UN has made it its mission to fail Palestinians politically, the international community can avail itself of the opportunity to slack in its humanitarian endeavours. It is, after all, part of the cycle which is indirectly maintained by UNRWA. Despite the important work it conducts for Palestinian refugees, there is no other available option than UNRWA. This creates a monopolistic approach that is exploitative when it comes to the Palestinian people's right of return. With the UN still controlling what happens with Palestinian refugees due to its support for Israel's ongoing colonial expansion, UNRWA will not be able to keep up financially, and the Palestinian refugee status will become permanent. After all, humanitarian aid can also normalise the causes of rights deprivation.
- 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. Her article appeared in MEMO.