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The case for UNRWA

Jan 23,2018 - Last updated at Jan 23,2018

UNRWA was created almost 70 years ago to help Palestinians forced out of their homes. At the time many believed it would not take long before the Palestinian refugees return home — as international law demanded.

But Israel, which had expelled the Palestinians in order to ensure a Jewish majority in the new Zionist state, had different ideas. It was not going to allow the 750,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed or terrorised into leaving their homes by Zionist militias to come back no matter how many UN resolutions reaffirmed their right to do so.

The Palestinians had been abandoned to their fate by Britain, the declining mandatory power which left Palestine after spending 30 years encouraging and supporting the Zionist colonial movement.

My village, Battir, just about 11 kilometres southwest of Jerusalem came right under Israeli fire in the spring of 1948. We fled on foot with only light belongings to a neighbouring  orchard where there was a spring. We camped there in shelters built of branches in the hope that within weeks we would be able to return home. That was the hope entertained by the majority. No one had ever imagined a year-long stay, let alone the seven decades that have passed so far for millions now still in refugee camps.

The Palestinians displaced within Palestine and to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria had despersate humanitarian needs.

To cope with the crisis, the UN General assembly decided in 1949 to create UNRWA, which would be funded by voluntary contributions from member states.

Blue trucks marked UNRWAPR — United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, later shortened to UNRWA — could be seen across the West Bank bringing food to distribution centres where Palestinian ration card holders received monthly allocations.

But UNRWA did much more than that. Quickly, it managed to build a huge administration, almost a government infrastructure, providing education, health, rehabilitation centres, social welfare and other services across a vast area of operations.

Then as now — UNRWA currently employs more than 30,000 people — the vast majority of its workers are themselves Palestinian refugees.

That in itself was critical to thousands of highly qualified Palestinians who previously held positions in the Mandate administration. Professionals such as doctors, teachers, nurses, administrators, engineers, craftsmen and businesspeople were also recruited.

As well as building thousands of schools, clinics and community centres, UNRWA carried out larger projects including building roads to places cut off by the war and occupation.

For 70 years, UNRWA has stuck to its humanitarian mandate. Yet despite this, it has been under relentless attack by Israel and its supporters.

In the latest assault, the US administration has withheld critical funds as punishment for the Palestinian Authority's refusal — along with much of the rest of the world — to accept President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

For Israel, UNRWA's existence is an inconvenient reminder of the existence of Palestinians whose usurped rights have still not been restored. Benjamin Netanyahu recently called to dismantle UNRWA in the hope that its disappearance will make the Palestinians disappear from the world's agenda and conscience.

Such logic is not just utterly inhuman and insensitive, it is also shortsighted and foolish. UNRWA's noble mission, ongoing despite severe hardships, funding shortages, false accusations and ever mounting duties, is in fact preventing the emergence of a larger tragedy.

While responsible forces and powers are mobilising efforts to fight the poverty and despair that gives rise to more violence, extremism and conflict, Israel wants to make things worse. Palestinians cared for by UNRWA are already among the most vulnerable people.

Making their situation even worse — as Israel continues to do especially in besieged Gaza — by further weakening UNRWA, will only invite more disasters. It will also have a devastating effect on host countries, including Jordan and Lebanon, that are already struggling to cope.

UNRWA's continued existence is a reminder of how the world has failed the Palestinian people. The solution however is not to de-fund UNRWA. It is to finally hold Israel accountable so Palestinian rights are restored.


In the meantime, UNRWA must have the resources to provide services to the people who rely on it not just for their needs today, but also for their children to have any kind of future.

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