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'Neutrality' and humanitarian aid for Palestinian refugees

Workers of United Nations Palestine Refugee Agency (UNRWA) prepare aids distribute to Palestinian refugees in Al-Shati Camp in Gaza City, Gaza on 14 January 2020. [Ali Jadallah - Anadolu Agency]
Workers of United Nations Palestine Refugee Agency (UNRWA) prepare aids distribute to Palestinian refugees in Al-Shati Camp in Gaza City, Gaza on 14 January 2020 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]

US President Joe Biden has transferred $135.8 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), following the signing of the 2021-2022 Framework for Cooperation and with additional conditions for the agency's commitment to "neutrality".

"The signing of the US-UNRWA Framework and additional support demonstrates we once again have an ongoing partner in the United States that understands the need to provide critical assistance to some of the region's most vulnerable refugees," UNRWA's Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini stated.

US aid to UNRWA was given against a commitment by the agency to abide by conditions such as "communicating any serious neutrality violations" to the US. "Like all UN agencies, UNRWA and its staff cannot take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature," the agreement partly reads.

US decision to cut UNRWA funding - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

US decision to cut UNRWA funding – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

UNRWA has been called out by Israel on several occasions, accused of enabling terror incitement through the Palestinian Authority's curriculum textbooks. Resuming funding to UNRWA was criticised by Israel earlier in April, notably by Israeli Ambassador to the US and the UN Gilad Erdan, who described UNRWA as using "a twisted definition of who is a 'refugee."

In between US impositions and Israeli oppositions, Palestinian refugees are caught in the crosshairs of humanitarian aid. While UNRWA's work is undoubtedly necessary, the condition of neutrality does more to align the agency with the international community's politicisation of humanitarian aid rather than create opportunities for Palestinians to pursue their independence and eventual liberation.

Is the US really a partner that understands the need to provide for Palestinian refugees, as Lazzarini declared, or is the US once again playing a part in keeping UNRWA afloat while ensuring that Palestinians never move towards repatriation and decolonisation?

If neutrality is meant to stifle decolonisation, it stands to reason that UNRWA's commitment to neutrality supports Israel's colonisation of Palestine. Humanitarian aid needs to be reconsidered in terms of describing the process for what it is – a framework that takes political rights away from Palestinians in return for helping them to survive the indignities of forced displacement.

No matter how much aid is pledged to UNRWA, Palestinians will not be compensated for the loss Israel inflicted through its colonial appropriation of land. Furthermore, if UNRWA acquiesces to the US-Israeli definition of neutrality, it would also need to question its own role in providing for Palestinian refugees.

READ: US restores assistance to UNRWA

The tragedy of Palestinian refugees did not happen without a context. The Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestinian territory – an action which is completely void of neutrality and which the UN agreed to – needs to become part of the narrative when speaking about UNRWA's funding and conditions; the latter also imposed upon Palestinian refugees.

Why are the UN and its affiliated agencies getting away with altering the meaning of neutrality to support a colonial enterprise that creates new Palestinian refugees on a daily basis? Conditioning aid for Palestinian refugees based upon the agency's willingness to indirectly promote the narrative which Israel wants – that is, oblivion as to the crimes of settler-colonialism – ensures a political monopoly over humanitarian aid. One that ensnares Palestinians, rather than UNRWA, into the complexities of neutrality as dictated by Israel's allies.

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

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