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Return us to our homes before closing UNRWA, say Palestinian refugees

When more than 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes in historical Palestine by Jewish terror gangs in 1948, followed by the establishment of the state of Israel on their land, the UN General Assembly established the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to provide humanitarian relief to all of those who had been displaced. The Agency was established in December 1949.

Palestinian refugees are still displaced and scattered around refugee camps and a worldwide diaspora. They and their descendants now number around 7.2 million people, including 4.3 million registered for humanitarian assistance with UNRWA.

Last month, US President Donald Trump, apparently under Israeli pressure, said that his administration is going to cut around half of its annual $125m donation to UNRWA, which will obviously have a serious direct impact on Palestinian refugees living in the squalid UN-registered camps. The US State Department has since announced that it is slashing aid to the Palestinians by $65m. It is worth remembering, that the US gives Israel $8 million every day; that's $3 billion a year.

Officials in the current Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu have called several times for UNRWA to be closed down. The Israelis and the Palestinians know that keeping UNRWA alive means keeping the issue of the Palestinian refugees alive, something that Israel would like very much to disappear. It continues to deny Palestinian refugees their legal right of return to their land.

Read: UNRWA calls on US not to politicise its aid to Palestine refugees

In the light of all of these moves to "solve" their issue by destroying it, Palestinian refugees insist that the existence of UNRWA is vital, not only to keep their issue alive, but also to keep them alive.

The following are excerpts of interviews with refugees carried out for Middle East Monitor:

Mazen Sayyid Kul, 53, from Yafa

"The existence of UNRWA is important for us. It provides us with food aid and health services. Without UNRWA, we will die.

"If UNRWA shuts down, Palestinian refugees will take to the streets without food, without work, without healthcare and even without political support. There will be crimes and social violence."

Sayyid Kul has been unemployed for more than 11 years. He has six daughters. All of them are students and study at UNRWA-run schools. He depends on UNRWA food aid to survive and receives, along with his family members, medical care in UNRWA-run clinics.

"If UNRWA shuts down," he added, "all the Palestinian refugees would enter a dark tunnel of loss, and go astray."

Ahmed Aghawani, 59, from Yafa

"The existence of UNRWA maintains the sustainability of the issue of Palestine refugees on the agenda of the international community. Since the first day that we were forced out of our homes, UNRWA has been caring for us.

Sameer Salim, 65, from Heribia

"I do not accept that UNRWA can be shut down before ending the Israeli occupation and us returning to our homes."

Aghawani has three sons, five daughters and 11 grandsons. "Ending UNRWA means ending the whole Palestinian issue and leading the Palestinians into the unknown.

"No one is entitled to look for the right of return except the refugee. If the word refugee is removed from the agenda of the conflict, it would mean that there is no one entitled to look for going back to the occupied Palestinian cities, villages and homes."

Sameer Salim, 65, from Heribia

"UNRWA is an important channel for international aid to Palestinian refugees and it is the tool used to interact with the international community.

"Shutting down UNRWA means losing our identity as refugees. This means the liquidation of our right to return to our occupied lands.

"We do not accept the dissolution of UNRWA before we return to our homes occupied by the Zionists."

Read: US cuts to UNRWA will hurt half a million Palestinian children

Asked about his response to Trump's attitude towards the issue of Palestine refugees, Salim said: "Unlike previous American presidents, Trump is crazy. He does not understand policy."

Sameer Salim, 65, from Heribia

Aishah Joudeh, 60, from Dimra

"UNRWA must continue providing us with its services. We cannot live without it and the huge amount of its support.

Aishah Joudeh, 60, from Dimra

"If we return home, we do not care about ending the services of UNRWA or even its complete shutdown.

"I am sure that if UNRWA is closed, there would be fierce Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation. The existence of UNRWA is a main reason for giving Palestine refugees the hope to return."

Joudeh, who lost scores of relatives, including her grandparents, in 1948, added: "Consecutive Israeli governments thought about ending the issue of Palestine refugees because they believed that it poses an existential threat to their state, which was created on a land that they did not own."

Nabil Al-Ghorrah, 65, from Kofakha

"The dissolution of UNRWA would affect all Palestinian refugees in terms of humanitarian support, including food, medicines and other services.

"It would be a disaster for the refugees mainly because it would come after the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. This means that the issue of Palestinian refugees is intended to be liquidated.

Aishah Joudeh, 60, from Dimra

"We do not demand more than our legitimate rights before the end of UNRWA services."

About these legitimate demands, Al-Ghorrah explained, "We do not want anything more than to return to our homes, cities and villages from where we were displaced in 1948."

He insisted that the refugees do not accept any solution other than the right of return. "We do not accept compensation or land swaps. Israelis have to return from where they came."

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