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UNRWA’s Financial Crisis

Zuhair Hawari
/
October   01,   2018
Although the crisis of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) appears to be financial in terms of securing the program budget and emergency appeals budgets, prompting it to take a number of austerity measures affecting its basic programs, the truth is that this crisis is essentially political . It is linked to the attempt to impose more than the “Deal of the Century” on the Palestinian people and leadership, who are still rejecting the trends that undermine their cause, from making Jerusalem the capital of the Israeli state and ending the issue of the return of refugees to their homes, to destroying the project of returning the Palestinian state to the Palestinian territories that have been occupied since 1967. 
 
Before disclosing the clauses of the deal that were leaked by several sources, the Israeli authorities have launched in recent years a series of accusations against UNRWA in its role and work and brought its educational and other programs on charges of encouraging terrorism and non-neutrality. Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched a diplomatic campaign to besiege the agency, restrict its work, reduce the funding of its activities, call for its discontinuation, and refer the Palestinian refugees to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which practically oversees about 65 million refugees in the world.
 
In the United Nations
 
The danger of the recent Israeli proposal stems from the fact that the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to their country is turned into a project for settling them outside their country if the Palestinians accede to the UNHCR on the basis of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its subsequent protocols . UNRWA has a mandate that the United Nations General Assembly renews every three years by overwhelming majority, which makes it difficult for Israel and its allies to withdraw or modify this mandate. Therefore, efforts are focused on trying to disrupt UNRWA without necessarily terminating it and on amending the definition of the Palestinian refugee in the international law.
 
In a careful reading of a recent UNHCR document issued in 2017 , Article 1 of paragraphs A and B stipulates that whoever benefits from any other United Nations organization cannot benefit from UNHCR. He/she shall once again benefit from UNHCR in case he/she ceases to benefit from UNRWA in terms of protection and assistance in general, or in one of its five operation areas, in the event of “proof of the cessation of this aid because of UNRWA’s financial or other inability to perform one of its functions, and without the need for things to go as far as discontinuing UNRWA”. This dangerous interpretation means that UNRWA’s opponents can complete the transfer of UNRWA’s responsibilities to UNHCR without passing through the General Assembly, if UNRWA is unable to carry out its basic duties for financial reasons.
 
The attempt to change the international definition of the Palestinian refugee is aimed at hitting three birds in one stone: First, stripping Palestinian refugees of privacy and integrating them with the rest of the refugees in the world; second, eradicating the right of return and compensation as stated above; third, reducing the number of Palestinian refugees from the 5.2 million registered with UNRWA to the Nakba generation exclusively without their descendants.
 
In the U.S. Congress
 
The Israeli campaign has had limited influence within the decision-making circles of the United States, whereas UNRWA has been heavily supported over the years, as the United States is considered the largest single donor to UNRWA. The administration’s efforts were restricted to calling on UNRWA to restructure its programs and rationalize spending. Also, the search for new financiers until the emergence of the “Deal of the Century” under the Trump administration came as a result of the intense political pressure on the Palestinian leadership and the countries of the region, to freeze financial aid to UNRWA, for instance. The positions announced by the makers of the “deal”  were clear regarding the pressure on the Palestinians to sit at the negotiating table on the basis of what has been achieved, from the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to it, to the cessation of the refugee issue, especially with the promulgation of the National Law by the Israeli Knesset. 
 
On the intention to settle the Palestinian refugee issue, Foreign Policy magazine revealed Jared Kushner’s emails to his colleagues in the team preparing the “Deal of the Century”, whence he called for “a sincere effort to obstruct the Palestinian Relief and Works Agency” (UNRWA) considering it a culprit in prolonging the refugee crisis .
According to the magazine, Kushner tried to get rid of UNRWA “quietly” as part of a broader campaign by the Trump administration and its allies in Congress to strip Palestinians of their status as refugees and keep their cause away from the peace negotiations with Israel. 
 
These trends intersect with the introduction of two bills in the U.S. Congress under consideration for reducing UNRWA support . The first calls on the U.S. State Department to provide UNRWA with an approximate number of those who received its services and to specify where they lived between June 1946 and May 1948, and whether this would “increase the security interest of the United States and its allies in the Middle East”. The second deals with U.S. aid to UNRWA  and calls for limiting “the definition of Palestinian refugees to indigenous refugees who meet the criteria stipulated in Article 101 of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which defines Palestinian refugees as those displaced during the Nakba only”. According to this bill, “the real number of Palestinian refugees who were displaced during the Nakba does not exceed 40,000 … without their descendants. The budgets are supposed to be disbursed to UNRWA based on this information … The project prohibits the United States from making its financial contributions to the UNRWA budget until certificates confirming that any recipient of its services is unaffiliated with terrorism are submitted … As for the Palestinians in Gaza, they are not refugees but citizens who suffer under the Hamas terror regime” as the texts of the second project mention.
 
In summary, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl reiterates that UNRWA’s current crisis is “existential” in an implied reference to schemes that target UNRWA, some of which we have enumerated . If successful, these schemes will have significant repercussions on Lebanon and the region in the short and medium term. During the visit of the American delegation headed by Kushner, it was leaked that there was an American insistence on ending the issue of the refugees on their land in order to allocate their final settlement in Jordan.
 
Basic services like health, education and social services offered by UNRWA to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon would be directly impacted. The refugees would suffer from a decline or discontinuation of these services, which would place additional burdens on the Lebanese government and threaten to destabilize the Palestinian camps. The greatest effect would be the absence of any possibility of return and the transformation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon into a reality imposed on them and on the Lebanese.
Therefore, it is essential that Lebanese diplomacy move in coordinated steps with the Palestinian leadership, which remains in the front line, as well as with the pivotal countries in the region, so that the deal will not be passed at the expense of Lebanon and its refugees.



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