Speculation was rife last month over whether the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was announcing its possible demise as a result of ongoing financial difficulties. The agency’s General Commissioner Philippe Lazzarini’s press release addressed to Palestinian refugees indicated that UNRWA may –– at the very least –– need to undergo modifications, namely outsourcing its services through UN partnerships but still under the same mandate, in order for the agency to remain afloat.
UNRWA was established in December 1949 to provide humanitarian assistance for Palestinian refugees.
UNRWA was established in December 1949 to provide humanitarian assistance for Palestinians who were rendered refugees as a result of the Nakba of 1948, when Zionist paramilitary forces ethnically cleansed Palestine to establish the settler-colonial state of Israel.
Since UNRWA’s establishment, its mandate has been renewed periodically by the UN General Assembly, with the current mandate set to end on June 30, 2023. The agency has been facing financial difficulties in recent years, which has restricted the provision of services and assistance to the 5.6 million Palestinian refugees under its mandate.
In line with the so-called “Deal of the Century,” which former US President Donald Trump proposed as an alternative to the two-state paradigm endorsed by the UN, the US cut all funding from UNRWA in 2018 in a bid to eliminate not only the agency, but Palestinians’ refugee status, and the Palestinian right of return.
“Reduction in funds is one way to shut up and close UNRWA. How do you do it? By saying, ‘UNRWA, you don’t exist anymore, with all due respect,’” the former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley elaborated.
Three years ago, Israeli media reported that the UN was seeking alternatives to UNRWA and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had approached pro-Israel, non-governmental organizations to submit their proposals.
While US President Joe Biden reversed Trump’s decision and resumed funding to UNRWA last year, the $235 million in aid he restored is only a fraction of the sum that was allocated to the agency in earlier years when the US was UNRWA’s largest financial donor.
This year, UNRWA sought $1.6 billion in financial assistance from the international community.
As aid to UNRWA has started dwindling even from the EU and other countries, the agency has repeatedly warned it may not be able to cater for the Palestinian refugees’ basic humanitarian needs. This year, UNRWA sought $1.6 billion in financial assistance from the international community to cover its core program and emergency humanitarian assistance. Lazzarini also noted that UNRWA started this year with a debt of $62 million.
“Disruption in UNRWA services will deepen a sense of being abandoned by the international community. That feeling is fed by years of underfunding, regional dynamics, and repeated politically motivated attacks against the Agency and against Palestine Refugees’ fundamental rights,” Lazzarini warned during an executive briefing in Geneva in January this year.
The discrepancies between funding and service provision are stark. Recently, the EU announced it would be contributing €246 million for the 2022-2024 period, as well as a €15 million contribution to ensure food security for vulnerable Palestinian refugees. To assist Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, UNRWA needs $365 million in emergency humanitarian assistance this year.
Since UNRWA relies on voluntary financial donations, and the agency’s donors are countries which also have economic and diplomatic ties with Israel, humanitarian assistance for Palestinian refugees is not a politically neutral endeavor. UNRWA claims neutrality as a principle, yet its funding and, as a result, its services, are directly linked to the political dynamics that are largely instigated by Israel’s aim to see the agency obliterated.
US funding to UNRWA is now conditional on the agency agreeing to a cooperation framework for two years. Among the demands, UNRWA has agreed to deny access to aid for Palestinians engaged in anti-colonial resistance ––– or in US-Israeli speak, terrorism, as well as to monitor education material. The underlying meaning behind this cooperation agreement is that through the principles of neutrality which UNRWA is supposed to operate under, the agency is now complicit in the US-Israeli political agenda to neutralize the Palestinian right to resist colonial domination that is recognized under international law.
While the US-UNRWA framework of cooperation is the most visible form of coercion against Palestinian refugees, the Abraham Accords under which Arab and Gulf countries have now normalized relations with Israel have also contributed to a decline in financial assistance to UNRWA.
It is likely that UNRWA’s mandate will be renewed for another term.
It is likely that UNRWA’s mandate will be renewed for another term. UNRWA has satisfied the international community’s humanitarian aid paradigm, which was supposed to be a temporary measure until a solution was found for Palestinian refugees. However, the political will to decolonize Palestine from Israeli colonization is not part of the UN’s plan, and therefore UNRWA became a “permanent” fixture, as did the fact of Palestinian refugees.
Lazzarini has stated that there will be no altering of UNRWA’s mandate or any handover of its duties. “UNRWA is and remains irreplaceable. We are gearing up to the voting on the renewal of the UNRWA mandate at the end of the year, and as there is no political prospect that includes Palestine refugees in sight, I expect continued high level of political support,” Lazzarini insisted, even as the tone of his address spelled a dire situation of the agency’s dependence upon its donors.
UNRWA can be weakened to the point where it can no longer sustain itself, given that donations are made on a voluntary basis. In that case, not even the fact that UNRWA was originally created to help Palestinian refugees only until a political resolution was achieved will be enough to maintain its existence; the reason being that the UN has no intention of taking up the Palestinian right of return as a political right, rather than an empty slogan.
If UNRWA faces its demise, Palestinians will be in peril. UNRWA is the agency that safeguards the the Palestinian right of return, despite the coercion by international donors which play upon its neutrality. The seeming disconnect of UNRWA playing a purportedly neutral role in a highly polarized political climate –– Israeli colonialism and its supporters on one side and the colonized on the other –– has contributed to the agency’s political involvement in providing for Palestinians while reaching agreements with their oppressors.
Trump’s era may be over, but his legacy with respect to UNRWA is still a plan in motion.