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UNRWA Does not Perpetuate the Conflict, the Conflict Perpetuates UNRWA

Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús | CC BY 2.0

In January, without warning, Donald Trump declined to pay $305 million of his country’s $365 million commitment to UNRWA.  UNRWA, the UN agency serving Palestinian refugees, remains $200 million short of the funds it needs to provide humanitarian services  for five million people, including 2/3 of the population of the Gaza Strip.

This is not really a story about under-funding UNRWA.  This is about the people who strenuously seek to eliminate it.

I worked as the business and livelihoods consultant to the office of UNRWA’s Gaza director, 2013 – 2015.  I had been Mercy Corps’ Gaza Economic Director for the previous two years.  I am not natural UN material, and the director, Bob Turner, once had to ask me not to refer to career UN staff as ‘you people’.  However, the blockade of Gaza necessitates a purpose-built humanitarian channel to the human beings who live behind the wall.  The violent onslaught of 2014 showed (again) how Gazans are endangered. While their suffering continues, while they are denied any freedom of movement, there must be an UNRWA.

Gaza’s Great March of Return has reinvigorated a specious argument against UNRWA:  by upholding Palestinians’ rights as they are written into international human rights law and UN resolutions, UNRWA’s very existence is said to perpetuate the conflict.  This makes a virtue of weakening UNRWA.

Yossi Klein Halevi hums this tune in a liberal key, in Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor (see pages 132 – 133).  Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz shout it at length in How UNRWA Prevents Gaza From Thriving(June 6, Ha’aretz).

They write that “UNRWA has succeeded in concealing its political raison d’etre of sustaining the Palestinian demand for ‘return’ designed to undo Israel, and it has done so under a humanitarian guise.”   Because UNRWA defines Palestinians as refugees, it prevents them from adjusting to their new reality as Gazans.  Thus UNRWA – not the blockade and not repeated bombardments – is impeding Gaza’s development.

They want Israel to “intervene with UNRWA’s donor countries … and insist that they cease and desist from supporting the Palestinian demand to annihilate Israel, by way of their support for UNRWA”.   Instead, donor states should adhere to the authors’ list of policy prescriptions.   Then Gaza will blossom behind its walls.

The international laws of occupation, human and political rights are missing from their formulation.   Although Israel was founded upon a right of return and boasts an ethic Law of Return, these authors are fervent that, for Palestinians,  “There is no ‘right’ of ‘return’ and there never will be.”

Having swept away law and justice and Palestinian resistance, UNRWA is all that prevents the authors’ imposition of a unilateral solution to the conflict.  If they can just get rid of UNRWA …

Make no mistake, though; UNRWA is only the apparent object of this argument.  Its real aim is to legitimate the status quo and eliminate the refugee issue entirely.  By removing UNRWA, these authors hope to make the present distribution of power and land permanent.

UNRWA does obstruct such a step-change, because the land in question is occupied and UNRWA has been tasked to provide services to the Palestine refugees living under occupation.  UNRWA is the inconvenient institutional evidence – not the cause – of the continuing occupation.

To correct misconceptions which tend to accompany this argument,

+ A short summary of UNRWA’s creation, mandate, and the definition of its refugee community by UN resolutions can be found here.

+ UNRWA’s mandate is renewed by the UN General Assembly every three years.Most recently, 167 member states voted to continue its mandate to June 30, 2020:  a great majority of the world’s states agrees that UNRWA is needed.

+ The right of return is enshrined in the United Nations Resolution 194. It is not UNRWA’s creation; rather, UNRWA adheres to UN resolutions.+ UNRWA represents refugees’ needs to donors, but it is not their political representative. UNRWA is neither a party to the conflict, nor a participant in any peace process.  UNRWA has no power to resist, prevent or approve conflict solutions.

Although it is not a negotiator, UNRWA does exist in a politicized space.  Serving and speaking about Palestine refugees as a single community, UNRWA reminds the world that Palestinians are one people, awaiting resolution.  As long as UNRWA gives institutional voice to the needs arising from that national claim, some people will imagine that the claim itself can be extinguished by making UNRWA disappear.

UNRWA is funded primarily through voluntary contributions, not through states’ UN dues.  While it is hardly passive, UNRWA is the instrument of its donors.  To understand UNRWA’s long life, one should ask why states retain and fund it.

It is, in fact, a glaring donor anomaly.  I arrived in Gaza after five years in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, donor states imposed neoliberal reform, while in Gaza the same states maintained the UN’s most superannuated agency.  They told hungry Afghans to work for temporary food assistance, while they told Gaza’s eager workers to line up for generations of passive food relief.  They knocked down every other wall as a restraint of trade, while they defrayed the costs of the walls around Gaza.

This is surely intentional.  UNRWA is one by-product of states’ refusal to legitimate the current arrangements of Israeli power and Palestinian exclusion.  They withhold normalization, and instead fund UNRWA as a stubborn institutional placeholder.

There lies the heart of Wilf and Schwartz’s argument: they seek to normalize the status quo.  They and others have protested that Israel receives unduly critical scrutiny, when all it wants is a normal national life.    However, they are asking that Israel should not be treated normally. They want an exceptional license to wield ethnic power, to control and devalue Palestinian lives.

The donor states have not normalized the status quo, because it is not normal. UNRWA is anomalous because the occupation is an unresolved anomaly. It is most abnormal, most violent and damaging in Gaza.  The authors would remove UNRWA in order to hide, not to resolve, Gaza’s crisis.

Crisis – what crisis?  “If the United Nations is capable of acting instantaneously to dispatch rescue operations to disaster areas around the world … without necessarily classifying [the affected people] as refugees, it also capable of doing so in Gaza.”

Gaza has not had a natural disaster.  It is enduring a protracted blockade, repeated military assaults, economic and environmental collapse.  It is a zone of manmade, escalating sacrifice.  To cast that as an administrative matter for routine, instant rescue is – and this is the very nicest thing I can write – murderously misleading.

I worked through the 2014 war as a member of UNRWA’s emergency response team.   Every bit of UNRWA’s physical infrastructure and thousands of its staff were needed, to shelter a quarter million of those displaced, to maintain urgent services, to drag food and supplies through the blockade bottleneck, and distribute them across the Strip.   UNRWA is the front line of Gaza’s civilian protection.  If UNRWA is dismantled, where will those people go for safety?

There is no instant rescue from a rain of explosives onto a trapped city.  Gaza needs humanitarian assistance, civilian protection, human rights and development.  It needs justice and peace, and UNRWA in the meantime.

More articles by:

Marilyn Garson worked with communities affected by war from 1998 – 2015.  She now writes from New Zealand.  Her blog is Transforming Gaza, and you can follow her on Twitter @skinonbothsides 

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