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Reinforcing compromising discourse regarding Palestinian refugees

An overview of the Fourth Committee’s meeting during the 68th UN General Assembly regarding the humanitarian work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was mired within discrepancies and allegations, creating the detachment of Palestinians from their own historical narrative. While delegations from other countries expressed support for Palestinians, the attempt to evoke an ephemeral equality undermined the instability faced by Palestinian refugees. At both ends of the spectrum, Israel and UNRWA managed to enforce their interpretations of Palestinian refugee status. The opinion expressed by the colonising power fuelled with imperialist support contrasted with UNRWA’s mandate to provide relief for Palestinians. However, as is evident, the subjugation of UNRWA is also sustained by the same imperialist policies which maintain the continuation of repression against Palestinians.


Participating delegations expressed varying opinions about Israel’s colonisation and UNRWA relief. Saudi Arabia declared the Israeli occupation as the only obstacle to decolonising the world. Other countries, such as China, Brazil and Malaysia called for an end to the Gaza blockade and settlement expansion. The right of return for Palestinians was also discussed by various delegations and obliterated by the US, which considered Palestinian refugees a permanent phenomenon which needed to be sustained and not solved. US representative Christopher Klein disseminated statistical information related to UNRWA funding, describing the country as the largest donor and condescendingly commending other countries’ contribution without adding any historical and political context to the issue of Palestinian refugees perpetually exiled due to an occupation sustained by a financer of both humanitarian aid and human rights abuses.

Israel commenced with an expected contradiction, affirming its alleged support for the agency while expressing its opposition to ‘UNRWA’s political agenda’. Palestinian refugees were also accused of monopolising the United Nations “with their own set of rules, their own funding and their own international agency”. The Israeli representative, Benjamin Sharony, attempted to invoke George Orwell’s reference to corruption by stating that “all refugees are equal, but some refugees are more equal than others”.

The Israeli allegations of exclusivity attempted to portray Palestinian refugees as a privileged group in need, adopting the elitist stance of the actual privileged settler society preposterously assuming an understanding of, and simplifying to a negligible complaint, the ramifications associated with forced displacement. Sharony also attempted to voice displeasure over the exhibited symbolism of the right to return depicted upon UNRWA camps, stating that the decorations utilising keys “locked the refugees in a distorted reality”. The solution to the plight of refugees lay in “a peaceful resolution to the ongoing hostility between Palestine and Israel”, according to Sharony.

Abstract declarations and intentional misinterpretation of Palestinian history have long been attributed to Israel’s colonial rule, attaching importance to the Palestinian population only when such mention allows Israel to inflict additional oppression in the name of security. The criticism levelled at UNRWA and Palestinians for exhibiting the historical representation of Palestinians refugees is reminiscent of Israeli intention to render millions of forcibly displaced Palestinians a mere humanitarian problem without a defining identity, distorting their reality by removing all historical attributions and thus evade moral responsibility for their ongoing plight. Israel’s embellishment of a peaceful solution is tantamount to oblivion – a tactic which Palestinians have proved capable of evading through their rethinking of resistance and allegiance to a homeland which, although usurped, remains the focal point of the collective struggle in memory and realisation.

The observer of the State of Palestine expounded upon the right of return and the centrality of the issue to any peace resolution, calling for the recognition of ‘the humanity of the Palestine refugees’, however the initial insistence was diffused with discourse of compromise. The description of Palestinians as succumbing to compromise creates a dissonance with decades of resistance, evoking subservience to the superior bargaining power of Israel; a trait which official Palestinian leadership has exhibited, resulting in the distancing of representation from the people.

Sharony also called for an amendment of ‘UNRWA’s politicized mandate’, a contradiction considering the UNRWA’s dependence upon Israel’s allies which have already manipulated the existence and alleged quest for justice of the United Nations. The intention was to vilify the agency as politically affiliated to supporting Palestinian resistance, an issue repudiated by Commissioner General Filippo Grandi, who attempted to project a non-political approach regarding the aid provided to refugees and simultaneously echoing US rhetoric with regard to educating Palestinian refugee children ‘about tolerance and peace towards the people of Israel’.

UNRWA’s claims of assuming a neutral stance portray the predicament of being responsible for the well-being of a displaced population and depending upon financial contributions from imperialist ventures. While Filippo Grandi corrected the Israeli accusation that Arab countries distanced themselves financially from UNRWA, discourse centred around gratitude towards Israel for limited cooperation allegedly alleviating the Gaza blockade and expressions of regret at being associated with unspecified “injustice” towards Israel – an ambivalence considering previous complaints about UNRWA officials being harassed by Israeli authorities. Succumbing to the Israeli projection of injustices which Israel alleges were committed by the agency requires a degree of subservience which is easily achieved, considering the limited resources and a continuous politically appeasing approach aimed at satisfying its prime financer and obscuring the implications for Palestinian refugees, namely maintenance of lives under extreme circumstances prohibiting recognition and implementation of rights.

The attempt to politically distance the agency from the repercussions faced by Palestinian refugees have illustrated the reverberations of dependence exhibited by UNRWA and passed on to a population which necessitates autonomy as opposed to restrictions exacerbated by the lack of funding in relation to the magnitude of needs wrought by Israel’s refusal to acknowledge the Palestinian right to return. The assimilation to US rhetoric invokes a questioning of how the agency is managing to support Palestinians in ‘resuming their regular lives’. The definition of a regular life is ambiguous and a resumption of life beyond the enclaves of forced displacement doubtful, since refugees are burdened with a lack of fundamental human rights enshrined in a multitude of invalidated, glorified and quoted charters.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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