Situating the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) within the colonial and humanitarian context provides a great deal of insight into the situation of the refugees. UNRWA at 70: Palestinian Refugees in Context (Palestinian Return Centre, 2020) brings together a collection of essays that elaborate upon the Palestinian narrative from within the dynamics through which UNRWA operates. The apolitical mandate of UNRWA, which is mired in political decision-making directly affecting refugee status, is juxtaposed against the Palestinian people’s interaction with the agency, including political mobilisation.
As the book’s editor, Pietro Stefanini, states, the book “centres on Palestinian refugees as political subjects that aren’t merely passive recipients of humanitarian assistance.” They have, he adds, “asserted and articulated” their demands, and continue to do so.
UNRWA has not escaped the colonial legacy in terms of humanitarianism, which places Palestinians as recipients of humanitarian aid, thus defining them as “apolitical humanitarian objects,” as Anne Irfan writes. The agency’s structure is complex and its operations, including its representation of Palestinian refugees, is influenced by its dependency on host countries, Israel and donor countries. Its senior management, which is largely Western, stands in contrast to the majority of its Palestinian employees and, of course, beneficiaries. Decision-making, therefore, marginalises Palestinians and any pressure on UNRWA by Palestinians is always applied externally. The dynamic is also reflective of how Palestinians were shunned in terms of political decision-making over the colonisation of their land by Israel through the 1947 Partition Plan and its aftermath.
Despite its humanitarian mandate, Palestinians view UNRWA’s services as a political right. In this manner, registration with UNRWA was seen as a political action, even as Palestinians in refugee camps carved out their own identity in terms of political resistance. “The previous generations’ shared trauma of expulsion finds continuity in refugees’ contemporary predicaments of dispossession in the camps,” writes Sophie Richter-Devroe. For the Palestinians, marginalised as they are, political representation is of utmost importance. Richter-Devroe notes that most Palestinians in the occupied West Bank refuse to accept the Palestinian Authority speaking on their behalf. It’s a logical sentiment, given that the PA has sought to downplay the Palestinian right of return, with the result that Palestinians have become more entrenched in the humanitarian paradigm.
Sari Hanafi’s contribution mentions the different urgencies for Palestinian refugees in terms of need and anti-colonial struggle: “What is urgent today in the Shatila camp is difference from what is urgent in the Gaza Strip, where the urgent struggle is to end the occupation.” The political urgency, however, is common to all refugees, and its absence is a point of contention for Palestinians receiving UNRWA’s humanitarian aid, particularly in consideration of the agency’s disposition to dissociate between political and humanitarian provision. Palestinians, Hanafi writes, “reject aid as a substitute for political action, especially in terms of camp governance.”
The book illustrates the importance of reframing the issue of Palestinian refugees in terms of their political rights. In light of the various struggles UNRWA faces as it grapples with funding problems and the repercussions of what could happen if its services stop, the aid it provides for Palestinian refugees cannot be substituted for political solutions.
Throughout the essays, it is clear that Palestinian refugees view their dispossession and refugee status as temporary. Indeed, UNRWA is also perceived as part of the international framework that enhanced dispossession, rather than being party to a solution. Settling refugees in host countries was seen by Palestinians as one step further towards losing Palestine permanently.
In its work with the international community, UNRWA’s focus on human development, refugee livelihoods, self-reliance and peace-serving fall within the agency’s mandate, in the absence of its participation in finding a political solution. However, Palestinians face an additional quandary. “What is largely unique,” writes Terry Rempel, “is the dissolution of the refugees’ country of origin and refusal of the successor state, Israel, which also occupies and exercises effective control over the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, to take the refugees back.” In addition, the ongoing displacement of Palestinians requires acknowledgement that Israel’s settler-colonialism is a process, rather than just a historical trajectory.
UNRWA requires Palestinian cooperation for its services to operate competently, indicating that despite their marginalisation, Palestinian refugees wield collective power to influence the political aspect of aid. It is not for external political actors to define what Palestinians understand or differentiate when it comes to the legitimate right of return and the necessities to survive. After all, survival for Palestinians does not merely include the immediate future, but rather a long-term plan that ensures a return to Palestine, as opposed to assimilation in host societies, which would facilitate both the international community’s quandary and UNRWA’s work.
UNRWA’s existence is related directly to the absence of a political solution for Palestinian refugees; one that endorses and applies the Palestinian right of return. Recent years have seen several politically-motivated attacks on the agency, particularly from the US during the Trump era and Israel. How UNRWA is viewed by such actors depends largely on support for or against the right of return. The complexities surrounding UNRWA’s operations, as the book portrays clearly, exacerbate and prolong the Palestinian people’s refugee status. Where UNRWA falls short is in terms of political involvement; the international community’s role should be proactive, rather than attaching mere symbolism to the Palestinian right of return.