Palestinians outraged over plans to weaken UNRWA refugee agency

The agency is the only major UN body dedicated exclusively to a single conflict

Palestinians collect food aid at a distribution centre run by UNRWA in Gaza City. The agency has faced funding problems for many years. AFP

A proposal by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees to delegate some services to other UN agencies has drawn criticism.

UNRWA was tasked with assisting Palestinians who were forced from their homes during the war over Israel's creation in 1948.

The agency is the only major UN body dedicated exclusively to a single conflict and people.

Last month, agency chief Philippe Lazzarini said UNRWA could ask other UN bodies to help with service delivery.

But Muhammed Shehada from the Swiss-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, told AFP that UNRWA is "not just about the delivery of services".

"As long as UNRWA is there, it's a reminder that the international community has a responsibility to solve the issue of Palestinian refugees," he said.

The agency has faced various accusations by the Israelis, including that it teaches anti-Zionist messages at its schools.

For years, it has experienced funding problems, regularly falling tens of millions of dollars short of its stated needs.

Counting primarily "on voluntary funding from donors would not be reasonable" going forward, he said.

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"One option that is currently being explored is to maximise partnerships within the broader UN system."

But Palestinians saw those remarks as a potentially devastating blow to UNRWA's long-term mission.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the plan would breach the UN resolutions that set up UNRWA, while the Palestine Liberation Organisation said refugees would be outraged.

Mohammad Al Madhoun, a senior official with militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, described the proposal as "an attempt to dismantle UNRWA as a prelude to ending its work".

With more than 30,000 employees and a budget of some $1.6 billion this year, UNRWA is a frontline provider of health care, education and other services to about 5.7 million Palestinian refugees spread across the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank as well as in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Former US president Donald Trump publicly sided with Israel in criticising UNRWA and cut all of Washington's funding to the programme.

The agency has firmly defended its school curriculum against pro-Israel critics, although Mr Lazzarini told EU representatives last year that problematic issues were being "addressed".

President Joe Biden's administration has since restored funding, but Mr Lazzarini warned in November that UNRWA was facing an "existential threat" over budget gaps.

Proposals to test 'Palestinian pulse'

Agency spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai told AFP that this year would see another $100 million shortfall that could worsen given "the increased cost of commodities and food that the ongoing Ukraine crisis has provoked".

Samer Sinijlawi, head of the Jerusalem Development Fund, which specialises in Palestinian humanitarian affairs, said Mr Lazzarini's proposal was in part an attempt to test "the Palestinian pulse" ahead of a 2023 UN General Assembly vote on renewing UNRWA's mandate.

But it also gave "a green light" to countries that have been trying "to manipulate this mandate and gradually end the work of UNRWA", Mr Sinijlawi told AFP.

He accused Mr Lazzarini of overstepping his authority, arguing the Swiss citizen's job was not to consider scaling back UNRWA's work but rather to carry out UN resolutions on Palestinian refugees, especially on the right of return.

Former agency spokesman Chris Gunness said that "even if UNRWA is dismantled or its services farmed out, Palestine refugees remain human beings with inalienable rights".

He stressed that while any blow to UNRWA's future could be perceived as a win for Israel, it would not mean that "Palestinian refugees and their right of return will magically evaporate".

But Mr Shehada said any "de-prioritisation" of the agency would be seen as diminishing "the Palestinian cause in general".

Updated: May 02, 2022, 4:49 AM
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