UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has once again exposed how the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and the Palestinian refugees themselves are subject to a cycle of exploitative violence which does more to serve the international organisation's humanitarian paradigm. During a meeting on the sidelines of the 77th UN General Assembly, Guterres appealed for more donations for the agency, saying that there has been an ongoing discrepancy in terms of rhetorical support for UNRWA and funding.
Describing the agency as "a safety net for the most vulnerable," Guterres added, "We continue however to have UNRWA remain trapped in financial limbo. It is past time to match overwhelming support for the mandate with more sustainable and predictable funding for its operations. Let us help UNRWA help Palestine refugees. Let us invest in peace, stability and hope."
While UNRWA has certainly provided essential services for Palestinian refugees since 1949, its total dependence on external funding since its inception cannot be separated from the UN's abandonment of the Palestinian refugee issue. UNRWA's mandate was supposed to be temporary, until a solution for Palestinian refugees was found. Yet even prior to its establishment, the UN's complicity in providing Israel with the framework for the forced expulsion of Palestinian refugees through the 1947 Partition Plan contributed to the ongoing predicament. Not only are Palestinian refugees dependent on UNRWA, but the agency itself is almost entirely dependent on external funding through voluntary donations from UN member states.
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Palestinian refugees have also been isolated from the politics of the right of return, which is now more used to justify UNRWA's existence. That legitimate right has never been allowed to be exercised due to Israel's refusal to accept such a right, even though the occupation state's membership of the UN was conditional upon the return of the refugees. Hence, UNRWA has become a more or less permanent fixture. Certainly for the international community, UNRWA's existence, subjugated as it is to conditions of neutrality which generate impunity for Israel's forced displacement of Palestinians, is a better option than agreeing collectively on a decolonisation process which would allow Palestinians to return to their land. UN Resolution 194 stipulates the conditions for the Palestinian right of return, tacitly endorses colonialism and absolves Israel of all accountability and responsibility for creating Palestinian refugees in the first place in order to establish a colonial entity in Palestine.
Last month, Jewish and Zionist organisations in Australia cited the usual litany of reasons and allegations to justify why the Australian government should not double its financial donation to UNWRA from $10 million to $20 million. "UNRWA helps perpetuate the conflict," claimed the President of the Zionist Federation of Australia, Jeremy Leibler. The only conflict, though, is a direct result of Israel's settler-colonialism, and funding UNRWA is the safest way for the international community to avoid facing up not only to Israel directly, but also to its own complicity.
Maybe Guterres can make a different call. He could, for example, call for a decolonisation process alongside funding for UNRWA, which would allow the agency to work its humanitarian mission with an end goal in sight, as opposed to the quagmire in which the agency and Palestinian refugees have been stuck for decades. The humanitarian paradigm has only ever served Israeli interests and continues to do so. Guterres should not pretend otherwise.
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