The Director-General of the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) has said that the role of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) remains vital for the protection of Palestinian refugees. Speaking at the PRC’s London conference with the theme “UNRWA and the future of Palestinian refugees”, Dr. Majed Al-Zeer, also expressed his surprise that there are some voices in the international community calling for the UN agency to be closed.
“We are holding this conference to mark the 60th anniversary of UNRWA’s creation,” said Mr. Al-Zeer, “and the essential services it provides have kept the refugees going for all of that time. They are needed more than ever before; it would be absurd to close the agency down.”
Mr. Al-Zeer made a number of important announcements in his opening speech at the conference: a survey conducted by the Centre in partnership with community refugee organisations in Syria and Lebanon, asking refugees their opinions on the performance of UNRWA; the publication of a report about the PRC-organised visit to Gaza with European Parliamentarians; and news that the PRC intends to hold a periodic “Week of Solidarity” for Palestinian victims of Israel’s illegal occupation, starting early in the New Year (2010).
The conference was held in Central London on Wednesday 16th December and was attended by prominent ambassadors, academics, researchers and representatives of UNRWA, as well as activists, students and media personnel. American Professor Norman Finkelstein was the keynote speaker.
All of the speeches contained the common thread that the situation of Palestinian refugees – spread across Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, as well as across the world in the diaspora – is worse than ever even though human rights legislation and conventions should make theirs an open-and-shut case. The Palestinian Representative in Britain, Professor Manuel Hassassian, said that it’s unacceptable for Israel to be allowed to break international law with apparent impunity and for its abuses to be met with silence from the world powers.
“I hope that this will be the last anniversary of UNRWA that we will be remembering with conferences,” said Prof. Hassassian, “because that would mean the problem has been solved.” The Palestinians, he added, can no longer tolerate what is a humanitarian tragedy, or continue to beg for international aid. “This can only happen when the Palestinians are given their right to return to the homeland from which they were driven, first in 1948 and again in 1967.” He reminded the audience that the right to return cannot be taken away by anybody or any country; nor can it be removed as part of any deal done in negotiations.
Prof. Hassassian’s astonishment at the ongoing destruction resulting from Israeli policies, and the increased “Judaisation” of Jerusalem was made clear. “There is a humanitarian need to be fulfilled, without doubt, but humanitarian aid is not the solution; we need a comprehensive political solution,” he stressed, before adding, “the issue is not about Israeli “security”, it is about the rights of an entire people that have been violated systematically for the past 61 years.”
This point was picked up by Independent Labour MP Clare Short, a former Secretary of State for International Development. “Israel prevents – indeed, won’t even discuss – the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland,” she said, “and yet any Jew from anywhere in the world can move to Israel and be given full citizenship and residence rights without question. That cannot be right.” The Birmingham MP considered the aggression on Gaza last winter to be a defining moment in the Palestinian narrative, as it showed clearly for the first time that the state of Israel is in real trouble, morally and politically. As a result, she said, charges of operating blatantly racist policies against the Palestinians have come as no surprise to the more enlightened of Israel’s politicians. According to Ms. Short, the whole international community and its agencies have been weakened by Israel’s actions and abuses of international law, carried out with apparent impunity. This, she believes, exposes, for example, the European Union’s “hypocrisy” in its dealings with Israel and Palestinians.
The conference was fortunate to have as a speaker Palestinian Professor Salman Abu Sitta, whose UNRWA registration card was shown on the full-sized screen as a poignant reminder that the Palestinians are real people with real problems, not merely statistics to be filed away. Like Prof. Hassassian before him, Prof. Abu Sitta called for international resolutions to be implemented, allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland; he believes that this is a “moral obligation” upon the United States and Britain, the architects of the disastrous partition of Palestinian in 1948.
Keynote speaker Professor Norman Finkelstein, the renowned author of books such as The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah, brought his speech up-to-the-minute with a stinging commentary on the furore surrounding the arrest warrant issued against Israeli politician Tzipi Livni. Referring to her comments that she was “proud” of what she did in January 2009 as Israel’s Foreign Minister, Prof. Finkelstein wondered how an elected politician of any country could be proud of what she did during 22 days of aggression against the defenceless civilian population of Gaza during which more than 1,400 people were killed, around one-third of them children. This could not happen without the US government’s blanket support for Israel, which includes turning a blind eye to Israeli violations of UN resolutions, international law and the Geneva Conventions.
Prof. Finkelstein took the audience back beyond the start of the aggression against Gaza, and reminded those present that the Hamas-led government in Gaza had both proposed and was “meticulous” in abiding by a truce with Israel from June 2008, and that it was the Israelis who broke the truce on 4th November 2008, prompting a response from Hamas that, in turn, provided Israel with the excuse to launch its vicious attack. “If you criticise the Hamas rocket attacks,” he said, “then you are saying that the people of Gaza have a legal and moral obligation to lie down and die.” This was not a war, by any definition of the word, according to Prof. Finkelstein; it was armed aggression using the most sophisticated weaponry against a civilian population. Testimonies from Israeli soldiers in “Breaking the Silence” mention that Israel used “insane amounts of firepower”, so that it was “like a computer game or a hunting party”, even though the Israel forces were faced with no enemy in the field. “It looks more and more like a massacre, not a war,” added Prof. Finkelstein. This makes it increasingly difficult for liberal US Jews – 70% of whom voted for Barack Obama – to defend what Israel is doing.
All of this was given a historical political context by Dr. Daud Abdullah, the Director of Middle East Monitor, citing Christian Zionism as far back as the 16th and 17th Centuries as the foundations for discussions about, and then firm action towards, the establishment of the Zionist state in Palestine. British attitudes towards the situation in Palestine are, he said, “vague”, with a general ignorance about the rights of the Palestinians which are, as a result, overlooked. Highlighting the double standards applying to the protagonists in Palestine, Dr. Abdullah believes that there is still a political and media bias towards accepting the Israeli position as the default position.
“The current narrative is distorted,” said Dr. Abdullah, “with the Israeli project depicted as a democratic and humanitarian imperative, while the Zionist state continues with its policies of ethnic cleansing and exclusion.”
Additional speakers included British politicians Jeremy Corbyn MP and Baroness Jenny Tonge, and Sami Mashasha, a spokesman for UNRWA.
Source: Quds Press