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UNRWA’s existence points to the UN’s failure to implement the Palestinian right of return

March 3, 2022 at 3:13 pm

A Palestinian man carries on his shoulder sacks of flour received from a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza on 29 January 2020 [MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images]

As important as the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is in terms of providing essential services for Palestinians, its existence is also a stark reminder of the international community’s failure to implement the legitimate Palestinian right of return.

On Tuesday, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas met with UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini in Ramallah, expressing support for the agency’s efforts and the importance of renewing its mandate. According to the PA news agency Wafa, Abbas also reiterated that, “The refugee issue is one of the crucial and important issues for the Palestinian people, which must be resolved in accordance with UN resolutions.”

Mobilising for aid is an immediate necessity. However, the UN has lost decades of political mobilisation in terms of the Palestinian refugees’ political rights. UNRWA, while absolutely necessary, is operating because the UN’s priorities revolve around the 1947 Partition Plan, and not UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Perhaps, therefore, it is also time to consider how this flawed resolution, which conditions the Palestinian refugees’ right of return upon accepting Zionist colonisation, is also a tool through which Palestinians have remained displaced and UNRWA is tasked with stepping in to mask the UN’s political failure. However, maintaining that veneer for the UN becomes impossible when Israel’s colonial expansion is juxtaposed against disappearing Palestine.

The 1947 Partition Plan created a false narrative for Palestinians, one that still influences the absence of political rights for the indigenous population. Concerning itself with Zionist demands, the established framework also influenced the clause that Palestinians should remain dominated by colonial politics, should they wish to return to their own land. Given that Israel consolidated its ethnic cleansing by refusing the return of Palestinians through its infiltration laws, all that the General Assembly resolution achieved was additional support for Israel’s demographic and purported security concerns. The non-binding resolution still holds no weight in international diplomacy and Palestinians have found themselves in a position where the only resolution that they can quote to support their specific right of return is flawed in Israel’s favour.

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UNRWA claims that it adopts a neutral stance, but there is nothing neutral about its role. For an agency that was supposed to be a temporary institution, it is now an indispensable tool for the UN and Israel. No matter how much Israel campaigns against UNRWA — and it has lobbied hard against funding the agency — the truth is that its existence keeps Palestinians away from exercising their right of return, which is precisely what the colonial-occupation state wants.

The PA’s commendations for UNRWA, therefore, must also be viewed in light of Ramallah’s own role in restricting Palestinian refugees’ right of return to embellish its rhetoric. If the leadership was serious about Palestinians returning to their land — which it is not — it would take issue with the entire trajectory created by the UN to keep Palestinians as perpetual refugees, deprived of land and rights. This year, UNRWA stated it would need approximately $1.6 billion “to make ends meet.” Yet the funds are not creating Palestinian autonomy and independence. Hence, funding for UNRWA should be in place while holding the UN accountable for the pretence it created over the Palestinian right of return.

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