Palestinians fear UNRWA may take first steps to end refugee services

PIJ's Mudallal called on the UN Secretary-General António Guterres to allocate a sustainable budget to UNRWA.

Palestinian employees of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) take part in a protest against job cuts by UNRWA, in Gaza City September 19, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
Palestinian employees of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) take part in a protest against job cuts by UNRWA, in Gaza City September 19, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency might allow other UN agencies to help service Palestinian refugees for the first time in its 73-year history, in a move that has angered the Palestinians who fear that it’s the first step in UNRWA’s dissolution.

UNRWA “bears a political title that embodies the international responsibility towards the Palestinian refugees and their plight,” a Palestine Liberation Organization official stated on Sunday.

“Preserving UNRWA means preserving the right of refugees to return [to their homes] and [receive] compensation in accordance with international legitimacy resolutions, and maintaining UNRWA is an important stabilizing factor and a guaranteeing factor for a development process to achieve the sustainable development goals that must include Palestinian refugees.”

The “plot” against UNRWA will lead to instability in the entire region, claimed senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad official Ahmed al-Mudallal.

Right-wing politicians in both Israel and the United States have long said that UNRWA should be dissolved. They have argued that it creates a permanent growing class of Palestinian refugees that dooms any effort to resolve the conflict with Israel. In particular, they have advocated that Palestinian refugees be serviced by other local governments or other UN agencies including the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

 Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of UNRWA, visits Sheikh Jarrah on June 2. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS) Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of UNRWA, visits Sheikh Jarrah on June 2. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

The Trump administration ended its funding to UNRWA precisely for these reasons, a move that accelerated UNRWA’s financial crisis.

US President Joe Biden has restored that funding, but the agency has remained in financial distress as global attention has turned to other crises, such as Ukrainian refugees.

On Saturday, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said one option to deal with the fiscal crisis is to “maximize partnerships within the broader UN system.”

He added, “Such partnerships have the potential to protect essential services and [Palestinian] rights from chronic underfunding.”

UNRWA has a $1.6-billion budget and services 5.6 million Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

At issue has been a $100-million annual shortfall.

“The painful reality is that in the last 10 years, and despite immense outreach and fundraising efforts, the resources available to UNRWA have stagnated, while the needs of Palestine refugees and cost of operations keep increasing,” Lazzarini said.

He blamed “shifting geopolitical priorities, new regional dynamics and the emergence of new humanitarian crises compounded by donor fatigue” for the absence of funds.

There is a “clear de-prioritization of the Palestinian issue, including most recently among some donors from the Arab region,” Lazzarini said.

“UNRWA has also increasingly been exposed to domestic politics in some of its traditional donor countries. Coordinated campaigns by organizations that aim to delegitimize and de-fund the Agency and erode the rights of Palestine refugees have increased in frequency and aggressivity,” he explained.

To ensure that UNRWA continues to service the Palestinian refugees it must consider some alternative steps, such as news UN partnerships, he explained. These would be “provided on behalf and under the guidance of UNRWA, and hence strictly in line with the mandate UNRWA received from the UN General Assembly.”

Lazzarini attempted to reassure Palestinians that there was “no handover or transfer of responsibilities and programs on the table and no tampering with the UNRWA mandate. UNRWA is and remains irreplaceable.”

UNRWA PLANS to hold a pledging conference in New York in June, and the UN General Assembly is expected to renew its mandate this coming winter, probably in November. The mandate is renewed every three years.

The PLO, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad rejected the statement of the UNRWA commissioner-general and warned that it was part of a conspiracy to liquidate the issue of the Palestinian refugees.

The PLO Department of Refugee Affairs of the Palestine Liberation Organization categorically rejected what was stated in the letter of the commissioner-general of UNRWA.

In a press statement, the department expressed its shock at Lazzarini’s statements, which seemed to support transferring some of UNRWA’s powers to other international organizations to perform them on its behalf.

Ahmed Abu Holy, head of the PLO department, said, “It is not within the authority of the commissioner-general to propose solutions to address the financial deficit in the UNRWA budget. He does not have a mandate to transfer the powers of UNRWA to other international organizations under the slogans of partnerships and synergy with UNRWA, which have political dimensions to liquidate UNRWA and transfer its powers to international organizations and the governments of the host countries.”

Abu Holy demanded that Lazzarini provide clarifications about the repercussions of what his letter contained. He warned that the letter “would generate angry reactions from the Palestinian refugees and would give the refugees a different image of UNRWA than the one that it portrayed.”

He added, “We consulted with all concerned parties, including UNRWA and donor countries in the search for innovative models to mobilize UNRWA’s financial resources, by finding new funders, urging traditional donors to increase their funding, and communicating with international organizations such as the World Bank and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The commissioner-general erred in the content of his message and in his proposal for solutions that cannot be justified, knowing that they will receive strong and negative reactions from Palestinian refugees, UNRWA staff and host countries.”

Mohammad al-Madhoun, head of the Refugees and Popular Committees in Hamas, said that Hamas totally rejects the statement of the UNRWA head and considers it “an attempt to dismantle UNRWA as a prelude to ending its work, as it is a political witness to the refugee issue.”

He said that transforming UNRWA services to other UN agencies means removing political responsibility towards the refugee issue in order to bury it.

Senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad officials also came out against Lazzarini’s statement.

The PIJ's Mudallal said, "The most dangerous thing in the UNRWA commissioner-general’s statement is to end the Palestinian refugee issue, which every Palestinian rejects.”

Mudallal called on the UN Secretary-General António Guterres to allocate a sustainable budget to UNRWA.

“Instead of intending to end UNRWA’s work, the commissioner-general should have put pressure on donor countries to pay their obligations towards the agency so that it could continue providing its services to Palestinian refugees,” he said.