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UNRWA’s institutional presence and neutrality

November 17, 2015 at 3:26 pm

In his address to the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee on Decolonisation, UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl gave a detailed overview of the restrictions faced by the organisation which, in turn, affect the lives of Palestinian refugees. From a recapitulation of the repercussions of Operation Protective Edge, which formed the foundations of last year’s report to the Fourth Committee, the civil war in Syria and violence in Lebanon’s refugee camps, Krähenbühl unravelled details of the humanitarian situation, managing to illustrate the impact of violence on refugee education.

However, the UNRWA head missed an opportunity to narrate Palestinian realities within a wider context that includes addressing international oppression. The organisation was portrayed as the means through which Palestinians can achieve a measure of stability, and this was achieved by depicting UNRWA’s education system as playing an essential role “in the dynamic of regional conflict”. The simplification is insufficient to describe the dynamics that affect Palestinian refugees.

The “essential role” of UNRWA is already compromised by its dependence on voluntary donations by UN member states; this ensures that services offered to Palestinian refugees are always threatened by funding shortages and so will not foster a possibility of autonomy. The regional conflict which Krähenbühl refers to is instigated by some of UNRWA’s donor countries, hence the perpetual cycle of offering less aid and investing more in violence, which safeguards both the organisation’s existence and violent international conflict. The trend attempts to assimilate Palestinians into a subjugated role, a phenomenon that is now experienced by refugees seeking to escape civil war in Syria. As such, UNRWA’s role should also be perceived as the means through which the agency’s own dependency affects Palestinian aspirations, as well as political visibility.

For example, Krähenbühl states, “UNRWA’s institutional presence provides a stable space in which Palestine refugees can nourish their determination and strength, adapt to what many hope is a temporary displacement and start to rebuild lives.” Temporary displacement has long evolved into permanence, given the UN’s corrupt agenda in bolstering war propaganda and intent, as well as its refusal to assume accountability for erroneously legitimising Israel’s settler-colonial presence. There is no stable space for Palestinians. UNRWA operates out of need, a concept that can only generate less liberty and opportunity for anti-colonial struggle. Revolting against the foundations that give a semblance of respite has become a dangerous option for Palestinian refugees. However, the acceptance of services by them should not be construed as cultivating a sense of stability. Neither should it be perceived as a form of subjugation. Rather, it is a repercussion of the political violence that has deprived Palestinians of their right to return to their land.

“We enforce neutrality within our organisation,” said Krähenbühl towards the end of his speech, “but we are not immune from the context.” While the remark was uttered in relation to alleged anti-Semitic remarks, the speech was littered with exhibitions of neutrality. The recent extrajudicial killings in the West Bank were given a brief mention and dismissed as an “upsurge in violence that has affected Palestinian and Israeli civilians.” Palestinian students are being shot-on-sight, yet once again UNRWA is reluctant to expound upon the consequences such action has upon education, possibly because its self-perceived neutrality provides a deterrent for UNRWA to draw attention to Israel’s colonial violence.

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