In a recent meeting with representatives from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Secretary-General Saeb Erekat once again wasted an opportunity to demand the implementation of the Palestinian right of return. UNRWA's mandate renewal, Erekat declared, "reflects the international political consensus on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes from which they were forcibly displaced." What should be done with the international political consensus, however, did not form part of Erekat's statement.
When the UN secretary-general is reported to have conspired with Israel to find alternatives for UNRWA, international consensus loses much of its power. Apart from the fact that the UN did nothing other than create humanitarian programmes for Palestinians to purportedly counter their forced displacement, the duplicitous role the UN has engaged in makes UNRWA's mandate a fragile reality.
While UNRWA's mandate is tied to the Palestinian right of return, it is also evident that there is no other perception than the agency being a provider of humanitarian aid and basic needs, including education and health care. Politically, UNRWA has maintained a stance which enhances the dissociation between the deprivation experienced by Palestinians and Israeli colonisation; the latter being the reason UNRWA was created.
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In his end of year statement, the UNRWA Acting Commissioner-General Christian Saunders avoided any mention of Israel when detailing the hardships Palestinians are likely to face in 2020. "We are witnessing sustained efforts to replace UNRWA in East Jerusalem and high levels of violence and destruction in the West Bank," he noted. "Gaza has suffered more than twelve years of blockade which has led to terrible living conditions which if not addressed will shortly become completely unsustainable." Omitting Israel from culpability in these human rights violations is part of the UN's narrative which is disseminated and adopted also by donors to UNRWA, many of which do not wish to disrupt their established ties with Israel.
Of notable mention is the following excerpt from Saunders' statement. "Everywhere I go in our five areas of operations, I am reminded of the enormous resilience it takes to be a Palestine refugee, as I am reminded of the essential role played by UNRWA and the services we provide in contributing to that resilience." In reality, the UN has politicised humanitarian aid to the point of excluding Palestinian refugees. UNRWA provides humanitarian aid, but Palestinian resilience is a collective effort that owes its existence to the commitment Palestinians have towards their land, rights and memory.
International consensus and implementation veers more towards making humanitarian aid for Palestinians permanent. The Palestinian right of return only retains international consensus as a reference – it is common knowledge that the two-state paradigm will not cater for a return as Palestinians envisage and as is their right. Erekat's statement makes Palestinians secondary to UNRWA and international consensus. There is no correlation between donor funding of UNRWA and the Palestinian right of return; the two-state compromise, as Erekat is aware of, reinforces the elimination of return. Humanitarian aid for Palestinians functions as a substitute for international inaction over its own consensus, to ensure that the Palestinian right of return continues to fade from the international agenda.
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