As they commemorate the Nakba, or 'catastrophe', Palestinians see the UNRWA as a vital ingredient in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
Today, May 15, the Palestinian people are once again commemorating the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, which marked their dispossession and expulsion for the Zionist movement to fulfil its desire to create a homeland for Jews in Palestine.
This year they not only look back with pain and sadness, but they also wait with trepidation as the Trump administration, biased in favour of Israel, plots the liquidation of their just cause.
The creation of Israel resulted in the expulsion of 750,000 of the 900,000-strong Palestinian population to neighbouring Arab countries. They were forced out of some 500 villages and towns.
Israel claims that many left of their accord or as instructed by Arab countries but what is undeniable is that Israel chose not to allow them back to their homes. The number of officially registered refugees has now grown to nearly five million out of a Palestinian diaspora which numbers 7.2 million worldwide.
UN General Assembly Resolution 194 was very clear about what should happen to those Palestinians when it stated: “Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.”
A Palestinian refugee is defined as any person whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period June 1, 1946, to May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict” as well as the descendants of parents who fit this definition.
On November 22, 1974, Resolution 3236 clarified the right to return as an “inalienable right”.
That resolution stands unfulfilled to this day. While Israel denies the Palestinian refugees the right to return, it has a Law of Return which grants any Jew the right to move and settle in Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship, no matter how tenuous their link to the state is. This ‘right’ was recently enshrined in Israel’s Nation-State Law, which confirmed this discrimination between Jews and Palestinians.
Providing services to Palestinians is a path to justice
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) of December 8 1949, to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees.
The agency began operations on May 1, 1950, and continues to operate today. UNRWA’s highly recognisable logo — at least to Palestinians — adorns schools, hospitals and offices run by the organisation wherever the refugees live. This is mainly in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN members.
In my travels both within historic Palestine but also to refugee camps in UNRWA’s operating areas, I have not met a single refugee who is prepared to give up on his or her right of return. When you ask them, where are you from? The answer is not Beirut, Amman or Damascus, but Safad, Yaffa or Jerusalem.
The surviving refugees tell you stories about their village or town, and many take you home to show you the key to the home they were expelled from and to which they hope to return or to build a new one on its ruins. The attachment to the place they came from and to Palestine is palpable and unshakeable.
This attachment, which continues to defy David Ben Gurion’s claim that “the old will die and the young will forget.” Yes, the old died, but the young have not forgotten.
UNRWA’s role in providing services to Palestinian refugees has meant that as they grow up in its schools with other Palestinians, their identity is maintained. That is what troubles Israel. It is the fact that the young refugees identify themselves as Palestinians, originating from places across historic Palestine that Israel demolished, or from homes it gave to Jewish migrants, which they see as theirs. They see it as a matter of time before they return to take their rightful place in their homeland. To them, it is a matter of when not if.
It seems that Israel’s strategy for breaking this link is to force UNRWA to collapse and to force host countries to absorb the refugees as citizens who, with time, will forget. If my conversations with those I have met are anything to go by, then they are unlikely to forget or to forgive.
Israel tried to smear UNRWA by accusing it of involvement in supporting the Palestinian resistance through allowing its schools to be used for weapons storage or allowing military operations in the vicinity. The now infamous attack on a Jabaliya school in 2014, at the height of Israel’s attack on Gaza, resulted in the killing of 16 people, mostly women and children.
Pierre Krahenbuhl, Commissioner General of UNRWA, said the shelling of the school was a "serious violation of international law by Israeli forces". He added: "Last night, children were killed as they slept next to their parents on the floor of a classroom in a UN-designated shelter in Gaza. Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced."
Israel repeatedly claims that UNRWA schools are used to incite hatred towards it through the curriculum. However, UNRWA Spokesperson Sami Mshasha noted that a de-classified US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report “affirms UNRWA’s unwavering commitment to UN values.”
The farce of the century
As US President Donald Trump’s team works on ‘the ultimate deal’ to end the refugee issue, their attempts to take the issue off the table have so far failed.
An end to US funding, combined with pressure on other countries to absorb the refugees, have had little effect.
Rather than taking the issue off the table, they should do the honourable thing and find creative ways to allow those refugees that wish to return in accordance with international law to do so.
As for UNRWA, they would be better spending their time celebrating its many successes, in helping refugee children meet their potential. There are many success stories to celebrate. UNRWA’s success in achieving gender parity in its schools is an example for all of the Middle East.
Those who want to kill the UNRWA should also read the UN Secretary General’s moving account of his visit to the Baqaa refugee camp in Jordan.
As Palestinians commemorate the 71st anniversary of the Nakba, the message to Trump’s team is that the time to close UNRWA is not now. It is when the need for its existence ends. This will be when a just resolution to the conflict has been found. Until that moment, the international community as a whole, not just Arab states, must continue to fund UNRWA to ensure Palestinian refugees enjoy the dignity and support they deserve.
That is not just “old talking points” as Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law described Palestinians’ commitment to their rights, but a moral and just path to peace.
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