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Why Europe must fight to preserve the UNRWA model

August 28, 2019 at 8:33 am

School children in an UNRWA institute fly kites carrying the hashtag ‘dignity is priceless’ to highlight the dire situation in Gaza [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

With just under a month gone by since an internal report accusing UNRWA officials of ethical misconduct was leaked, the international community has received news that the governments of Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands have suspended payments to the Agency. While legitimate concerns about ethical misconduct within the UNRWA administration have undoubtedly influenced decisions to suspend payments, disassociation from UNRWA will nevertheless impact the provision of its essential services and set a precedent that has the capacity to further exacerbate the Agency’s organisational capacity.

The news that key countries within the European Union — the largest single donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees — are starting to question their annual commitment comes as the Agency is facing the greatest funding crisis in its history following the end of donations from the United States in September last year. As a result of America’s decision to end its payments, UNRWA officials announced in June that it was facing a budget shortfall of $211 million. With its impact on the main objective of UNRWA – that is, to operate as the first and main source of relief for over 5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East – it is highly probable that the UNRWA model will come under heightened pressure in the foreseeable future as funding uncertainty increases and key donors become disillusioned with the Agency’s mission.

In this context, the suspension of UNRWA contributions by key European countries acts as a de facto contributory factor in the calls to either abolish the Agency in its entirety or to implement a system of “conditional donations”; they are already entirely voluntary. These calls, which are being pushed increasingly by European officials such as Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis, have the capacity to play dangerously into Israeli-American visions for peace and further complicate one of the core final status issues in the conflict: the Palestinians’ right of return.

READ: UNRWA schools to open on time despite funding cuts

In this light, the continuation of the UNRWA mandate is an imperative component of preserving that right, which is inalienable and binding; enshrined in international law and norms; and has been reaffirmed and codified countless times in the UN. For the Palestinian national movement, a just resolution to the refugee problem is recognised as a sine qua non in any settlement process.

In their efforts to revise this process, as being witnessed through the so-called “Deal of the Century”, Israeli and American officials have been keen to challenge this and take aim at UNRWA as a means of liquidating the Palestinian refugee problem and thus the right of return.

Speaking to the UN Security Council in May, Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt alluded to a proposed liquidation of the Agency by suggesting the following: “We need to engage with host governments to start a conversation about planning the transition of UNRWA services to host governments, or to other international or local non-governmental organisations.”

US President Donald Trump's Assistant and Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not seen) meet in Ramallah, West Bank on May 25, 2017 [Issam Rimawi / Anadolu Agency]

US Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt in Ramallah, West Bank on 25 May 2017 [Issam Rimawi / Anadolu Agency]

Before a settlement for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reached, however, the preservation of the UNRWA model is vital to ensure that the peace process remains alive, albeit by a hair’s breadth. Despite its ethical shortcomings, UNRWA has agency over the livelihoods of more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in what is a time when host countries or local organisations are probably unable to take on such a responsibility.

Without collective work to uphold and maintain it, the international community threatens to acquiesce to Israeli-American designs that may problematise a core component of the peace process indefinitely. To prevent this from happening, everything must be done to ensure that UNRWA’s vital services are neither suspended nor terminated and that the Agency has enough funding (including from its main donors in Europe) to carry out its mandate properly. This is not to say that an ethical crisis within the Agency should not be addressed with the utmost due diligence, but rather that subjecting over 5 million Palestinian refugees to political blackmail and terms and conditions set forth by donor countries is the last thing that should be done to make an example of officials who are possibly not fit to hold their positions.

READ: International community pledges $110 million to UNRWA 

Indeed, UNRWA’s organisational capacity is already stretched with reports that the Agency is struggling to provide adequate services. For example, reports have noted water pipes being mixed with electric wires in refugee camps and a chronic lack of space to bury refugees. Any transition from the UNRWA model, though, is likely to exacerbate these existing issues and bring new ones that will undeniably impact the plight of Palestinian refugees for the worse. To safeguard UNRWA’s mandate, European scepticism must be challenged as a matter of urgency before it is too late.

One group aiming to do this is the London-based NGO EuroPal Forum. Working to influence policy on the Palestine question across Europe, the organisation has been writing to the Ambassadors of Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands in an effort to stress the consequences of the decision to suspend aid.

UNRWA's lifeline is decreasing due to the cuts made by the Trump administration [AlArabi21News/Twitter]

UNRWA’s lifeline is decreasing due to the cuts made by the Trump administration – Cartoon [AlArabi21News/Twitter]

The Chairman of EuroPal Forum, Zaher Birawi, noted that the decision to suspend donations to the Agency comes amidst difficult circumstances for the Palestinian national movement following the sea change in the US government and the projects being pursued by the Trump administration, especially with regard to the cancellation of the right of return and the closure of the Palestinian refugee file. Birawi warned that the decision by the three European countries to suspend funding inadvertently acts in favour of calls to abolish the agency or to implement a system of “conditional donations”, which serves to benefit the unilateral Israeli-American vision of peace. This vision is clearly – according to Birawi – a problem for all who have a comprehensive understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For him, it is imperative that European governments are urged to reverse the decision to suspend funding before an official investigation is carried out. Pre-emptive action before such an investigation, he believes, is wholly unjustified and will lead to severe humanitarian consequences for the Palestinian refugees.

To avoid this, Europe must view the importance of maintaining UNRWA’s services through the context of the preservation of the right of return, a core component of the peace process and an issue held sacred amongst Palestinians from all walks of life and political inflections. It is undeniable that with an underfunded and understaffed UNRWA, this right will be seriously endangered as Israeli-American efforts to end the “refugee problem” will naturally become more pronounced. This is a reality that will threaten to plunge the Middle East peace process into a new dark age of intractability. If Europe is serious about the peace process and upholding Palestinian rights in accordance with international law, it must act now to prevent this by giving UNRWA the support that it needs.

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