Blog post by Dr Jasmin Lilian Diab (Assistant Professor of Migration Studies, Lebanese American University, and Refugee Health Program Coordinator, Global Health Institute, American University of Beirut)
In October 2020, an Israeli court ruled that Palestinian families living in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah were to be evicted within eight months and hand their land over to Jewish families. Five months after the court decision, Palestinian families from this neighborhood filed an appeal to the court ruling. By late April 2021, demonstrations had erupted across Jerusalem, and by early May 2021, after a court ruled in favor of the evictions, protests expanded with Israeli police ultimately deploying force against demonstrators at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. Israeli forces reportedly used stun grenades, rubber bullets, and water cannons in violent altercations that left hundreds of Palestinians wounded.
The ongoing tragedy of the Palestinian people has been played out before the world’s eyes since the creation of the state of Israel. In two major waves (1948 and 1967), the Palestinian people were driven out of their land, with large factions of the population becoming refugees in neighboring countries throughout the region. In 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 sought to divide the British Mandate of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. Following this resolution, the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 resulted in an estimated 750,000 Palestinians being forcibly displaced and becoming refugees. None of the aforementioned displaced Palestinians were ever allowed to return to their homes, and the Palestinian refugee population has steadily grown since the first war of 1948. Presently, there are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees dispersed across the MENA region, and the world. The reality of Palestinians’ forced displacement lies at the center of the modern Palestinian experience, and constitutes the central pillar of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The dream the Palestinian diaspora has of returning to their land has become increasingly difficult to realize, as Israeli forces continue to expand their takeover of Palestinian territory through protracted conflicts, wars and the establishment of settlements on Palestinian lands.
The total number of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA stands at 5.6 million. Jordan currently hosts more than 2 million Palestinian refugees, Syria hosted more than 500,000 Palestinian refugees before the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011, and Lebanon currently hosts anywhere between 260,000 and 400,000 Palestinians (as well as a number of Palestinian refugees who fled the Syrian conflict) based on various sources. It is in Lebanon that their plight is the worst in the region – as Palestinians continue to grapple with no access to citizenship since 1948. With the first generation of Palestinian refugees gradually decreasing in number, the second generation finds itself on its way to meeting the same fate, with the vast numbers of Palestinians bound to a life in Lebanon’s twelve officially recognized camps amid no promising future prospects or enhanced rights provision. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (as well as Palestinian refugees from Syria that currently reside in the country) are banned from working in over twenty professions. They are also legally prohibited from buying any property.
UNRWA as a “Temporary” Agency amid a Seemingly “Permanent” Conflict
Almost a decade ago in 2012, the United States Senate Appropriations Committee passed the Kirk Amendment as part of the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill for 2013. The amendment was ultimately tasked with shrinking the number of Palestinian refugees recognized by the US from 5 million to about 30,000. The amendment, in an unprecedented move, requested that the State Department distinguish between Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 and refugees who are their descendants, in order to assess who were the refugees who were actually displaced from their homes. In an attempt to challenge the notion that Palestinian refugee status can be passed from generation to generation, the Amendment questions the ever-expanding numbers of Palestinians UNRWA caters to without ultimately presenting an alternative at the humanitarian level. As the one of the largest donors to UNRWA, the US has channeled close to USD 240 million annually to the UN agency – with the exception of two years (2018-2020) under the Trump presidency, where the then-President suspended US funding to the agency.
As a “temporary” agency, UNRWA insists that its services will no longer be necessary when a “just and durable solution” for Palestinian refugees is achieved, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. While UNRWA’s mandate was set to expire in one year, seventy years later, it continues to provide essential services for the wellbeing and protection of Palestinian refugees, as a just solution sinks further and further into the ocean of political will and human rights priorities. However, does UNRWA’s “temporary” nature assist in cementing a “permanent” occupation narrative and consequently the perpetuation of a “permanent” status of refugee-hood? UNRWA currently serves as an open-ended solution for the education, health, wellbeing and livelihood of millions of Palestinians in complete contradiction to its “temporary” nature, and its establishment as a “short-term” solution until the once pressing matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved. So does its endurance for seven decades actually serve in the interest of the refugee or the occupier?
While UNRWA officially defines a Palestinian refugee as an individual whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of June 1, 1946 to May 15, 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict,” this definition has since been expanded to meet the political and human rights landscape the conflict has expanded into. In application, UNRWA has continued to broaden the definition of a Palestinian refugee to encompass new generations of children and grandchildren of such refugees who can effectively register with UNRWA to receive the same forms of assistance. By 2021, 5.7 million Palestinians were registered with UNRWA as refugees and more than 1.5 million lived in UNRWA-run camps despite the agency’s original intention to assist the aforementioned 750,000 refugees of 1948.
However, to what extent is the “temporary” mandate of UNRWA realistic amid no foreseen solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And just how pivotal is the agency’s existence (and endurance) when it serves as the backbone of the Palestinian community? Caught between a rock and a hard place, while UNRWA serves in the interest of an international community that would otherwise prefer to assist the Palestinian refugee community than potentially break its political ties with a major ally in the region, the Agency does have financial and political interests in maintaining its operations. Amid a complete absence of political will to resolve the ongoing conflict, UNRWA serves as the largest single employer of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
US Restores UNRWA Funding amid a Pandemic
Shortly after his election as President, Biden’s Administration announced the restoration of its decades-long USD 240 million support to UNRWA. The restoration of US funding followed a severe financial crisis for the Agency under the Trump Administration’s decision to cease support. The intersection of the financial crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the dire situation further, forcing UNRWA to respond to a public health crisis amid what the Agency dubbed the greatest financial crisis in its history. The US’ renewal of funding provides support UNRWA’s five fields of operation in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the operation of 700 schools educating over 500,000 children and 150 primary health clinics providing over 8 million patient consultations per year. These funds continue to support food, emergency cash assistance, emergency health/mental health, education in emergencies, protection, water and sanitation, and the COVID-19 response. But once again, does the US’ funding serve its ally in the region or the Palestinian people more? And to what extent does a resumption of funding reiterate the US’ commitment to the existence of its ally, while also prolonging the refugee-hood of the Palestinians indefinitely – and subsequently, prolonging peace talks, dialogues and permanent solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or, even more dangerously, is UNRWA the only permanent solution Palestinians can hope for?
The first formal move towards the recognition of a “right of return” for Palestinians was the UN General Assembly Resolution 194’s Article 11 (passed on December 11, 1948). It stipulates “[…] that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” UN General Assembly Resolution 3236 (passed on November 22, 1974) also declares the right of return to be an “inalienable right”. As increasing numbers of Palestinians migrate from the camps they live in to Western countries, the notion of “return” may diminish as the Palestinian diaspora across the US, Canada and European states is probably less likely to claim their right of return to a country that essentially has less to offer in the areas of education and economic stability. In contrast, and beyond the politics of return, the calamity of the Palestinian reality continues to escalate in camps in neighboring countries, where generations of Palestinians continue to live with very limited options for upward social mobility. The politics driving the broader cause of the Arab-Israeli Conflict additionally poses more obstacles to refugees’ attainment of citizenship and the provision of their basic human rights.
One pivotal obstacle to the right of return that requires attention is the international community’s willingness to comply with a definition of “refugee” that permits it to be passed on from one generation to another. Nowhere else in the world is a refugee crisis officially in its fifth or sixth generation. While children and grandchildren of refugees around the world may still pursue property compensation claims, nowhere else is a notion of “return” outlined. Moving from this point, the longer the “right of return” issue remains open-ended and unframed within a timeline, the longer the Palestinian problem will simply become a “refugee problem” – ultimately isolated from larger political and human rights debates. So long as Palestinian refugees’ interests and rights are dependent on unforeseen promises of a permanent peace agreement amid no real negotiations, they will continue to be the ones who get the shorter end of the stick.
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