Since its establishment in 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been ready to explode at any given moment because of its connection to political, legal and humanitarian factors surrounding the Palestinian cause. The political situation has paved the way for it to play the role of a "political pressure card", not least because it directly affects the lives of the refugees of the most complicated issue in contemporary history.
The agency was established under UN General Assembly Resolution 302, which is associated with Resolution 194, passed a year earlier, regarding the Palestinian refugees' right of return to their land. The latter added a political dimension to the decision to establish UNRWA, particularly in terms of a positive contribution to the return of the refugees to their homes from which they were forcibly displaced — some have called this "ethnic cleansing" — by the creation of Israel.
Among the recommendations of the UN General Assembly was to mandate UNRWA to support the refugees until a permanent solution to their cause was found. This support includes aid programmes in education and health; employment opportunities; and relief programmes and social services.
With regards to political and legal affairs, the General Assembly periodically addresses the issue of Palestinian refugees as an agenda item. Furthermore, it frequently reiterates and recognises the "refugees' inalienable right of return to their homes and compensation for their lost property as a result of occupation and displacement." However, the lack of any international will to oblige the occupying State of Israel to implement the terms of UN resolutions means that this is still an outstanding issue waiting to be resolved. This is despite the fact that Israel's own membership of the UN was and remains conditional upon the refugees being allowed to return to their homes.
The conditions under which the agency was established and its limitations due to its funding being almost entirely dependent on voluntary donations from UN member states, the bulk of which come from the US and Europe, followed by Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, makes it easier to understand the current reductions in UNRWA's services to the refugees. Donations can be — and look as if they are — withheld for political reasons, which makes life even more difficult for the millions of Palestinian refugees who depend on UNRWA in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
The UN not only considers and then issues resolutions, but also looks at the mechanisms necessary for their implementation except, it seems, when those decisions are in favour of the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights, including their right of return. This is not because of Israel's military hegemony in the Middle East. Far more important is the fact that its main benefactor and protector, the US, is also the main state pulling the strings at the UN, where it wields an undue degree of influence. America and its allies are the real guarantors of Israel's continued existence, colonial expansion and security.
Read: Politicising UNRWA
Why, then, did the UN establish UNRWA and keep it going for decades if it has never had any real intention or ability to return the Palestinian refugees to their land and thus terminate the basic need for the agency to exist? I believe that the Western countries whose post-Holocaust guilt leads them to turn a blind eye to Israel's contempt for international laws and conventions also fear the scandal that would engulf them if Palestinian refugees were left to fend for themselves in their host countries, upon whom they are already a major burden. That burden would increase exponentially if UNRWA wasn't there to provide an economic, medical and educational safety net. In part, this also explains why the West created and funds the Palestinian Authority — which has no real authority whatsoever — as a pseudo national entity acting on behalf of the occupation authorities, not the Palestinians themselves.
To this may be added the efforts of those states which control the UN to delay any serious attempts to solve the refugee issue, giving Israel more time to establish "facts on the ground" — illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land — and thus pre-determine the eventual outcome of the farcical "peace process". As a direct consequence of this, the priority has shifted from allowing refugees to return to their homes, as is their right, to looking at ways for them to integrate in their respective host countries. Compensation for the loss of the right of return has also been mooted.
The powerlessness of the Arabs across the region has allowed the superpowers to control UNRWA and its approach, for the latter are important donor countries to the agency and no humanitarian aid programme for refugees can be implemented without their financial backing. Arab and Islamic support for UNRWA is extremely limited compared with that from the US and Europe.
UNRWA was, obviously, established after the "declaration of independence" of the State of Israel. Its founding resolution was made to reinforce the new reality and includes articles which refer to "taking effective measures as soon as possible to end international relief aid". This was manifested in the policies it adopted, including the allocation of larger budgets for the purpose of integrating refugees into diaspora communities rather than providing relief aid.
However, the running down of UNRWA's services, which began years ago, has accelerated recently, with the single largest donor state, the US, cutting its funding to the agency. The US donated $157 million to the main programme budget of UNRWA in 2017 but has cut that to just $60 million this year. This has had a disastrous effect on the humanitarian crisis facing refugees in the Palestinian territories and the camps across the diaspora.
The humanitarian disaster had already started to manifest itself when UNRWA announced that it might not be able to accept students at its schools for the 2018/19 academic year due to a lack of adequate funds. This was preceded by the World Food Programme's suspension of food aid to 92,000 Palestinians in dire poverty in the Gaza Strip; again, this was due to a lack of adequate funding from the international community.
One of the consequences of UNRWA's financial predicament was the dismissal earlier this year of dozens of employees working for the agency in Jordan. A major portion of UNRWA's budget is spent on salaries, and most of its employees are refugees themselves, so their income is a key part of the refugee economy. The job cuts in Jordan affected cleaners and caretakers of UNRWA schools and health centres in every Palestinian refugee camp — there are 10 — in the Hashemite Kingdom, which is the "temporary" home of 2 million registered Palestinian refugees.
The agency has also recently sacked 1,000 employees in the Gaza Strip. According to UNRWA's own data, it is ready to dismiss more staff if the financial crisis continues, in addition to cutting regular programmes such as summer camps and other activities for children.
Washington has adopted an extremely hostile attitude towards UNRWA since the election of Donald Trump as President. The nature of the changes affecting the agency reflect the policies of the Trump administration affecting Palestinian refugees and the overall Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. In general, the new US position is even more in tandem with Israel's position and interests than before, while the latter wants to have UNRWA closed down in order to wipe Palestinian refugees off the international political agenda altogether.
America's position has been expressed explicitly recently in the Trump administration's passion for Israel and its colonial expansionism at the expense of the people of Palestine and their cause. The issue of the refugees is being kept well away from what are presented as "negotiations" but which are, in reality, simply the Palestinians being told what to do, or else. In any case, "or else" is usually the end result. We are now at the stage of the US saying that UNRWA is "harmful for Palestinian refugees and that its mandate was counterproductive." This is astonishing.
It is naïve to misunderstand the nature of the situation facing the 5.3 million Palestinian refugees scattered across the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. They have growing needs linked to health, education and other services at a time when we are all well aware of the scale of the economic and security difficulties experienced by the host countries.
It is hard to imagine how hundreds of thousands of families deprived of the UNRWA safety net will survive. What fate awaits the tens of thousands of UNRWA employees who may find themselves out of work and with no source of income?
I have no doubt that the security and political implications of such a potential surge in poverty and disillusionment in the peace process have been considered in regional capitals and the West. The Middle East is already in turmoil, but it stands to get much worse unless something is done to stem the cuts in UNRWA's funding. The spectre of increased extremism and terrorism is very real, and the cause will not be religion or radicalisation, but Western reluctance — led by America — to fund UNRWA adequately and make genuine efforts to solve the Palestinian issue according to the stated will of the international community through UN resolutions.
UNRWA officials are well aware of the grim scenario that is unfolding, and have launched appeals and campaigns to reduce the agency's budget deficit. They know more than anyone — with the possible exception of the refugees themselves —how important it is for UNRWA to be able to fulfil its humanitarian, moral and legal obligations to millions of Palestinians. The Arab and Islamic countries must step up to the mark and take the necessary measures to prevent a disaster by allocating donations to UNRWA which reflect the size, complexity and nature of the refugee crisis.
Humanitarian and charitable organisations in the Arab and Muslim world can also play a key role by stepping in where UNRWA is unable to help. They can help to strengthen the social safety net in refugee camps, especially in more 700 UNRWA schools responsible for half a million Palestinian pupils. Almost 150 major health centres can also be supported by the voluntary sector, as well as relief programmes, microfinance schemes to boost the economy and emergency aid. To do this effectively, though, governments have to end the politicisation of humanitarian aid and ease the pressure on charities, especially those operating in areas of high risk, such as the occupied Palestinian territories.
Practical, long-term alternatives to the reality of UNRWA's financial and political crisis need to be prepared. An "Arab and Islamic Organisation" project, for example, could be responsible for the political and administrative affairs of the Palestinian refugees, including the provision of financial aid across all sectors, such as education and health, as well as humanitarian support, thus preventing donor countries from controlling and politicising the aid that they provide to the Palestinians and the refugee host countries.
Moreover, we should not neglect the political support necessary to protect the Palestinian constants, especially the refugees' right of return. We must be in a position to challenge the schemes which aim to exterminate the Palestinian cause altogether. It would be a priority for such an "Arab and Islamic Organisation" to be faith-based, with a firm and enduring belief in the rights of the Palestinian people, such as the right of return of refugees and compensation, in addition to supporting their right to build an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.
This is not beyond the realms of possibility if the political will is there, because popular support is just waiting for such a move to be made. UNRWA and the people of Palestine have depended for too long on states which have turned the humanitarian crisis into a political football; it is time for this to stop. The US and its allies must stop playing with people's lives in such a damaging way; Palestinian lives also matter.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.