North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

The US is tying the hands of a UN agency for Palestine refugees

By conditioning its funding to the UNRWA, the US effectively presides over a trusteeship that may affect the agency’s ability to provide aid

Tarek Hamoud
22 October 2021, 12.00am
The US will seemingly provide funding to UNRWA as long as some conditions are met
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PA Images

Palestinian refugees are under constant attack from the Israeli government and pro-Israel lobby groups. And as the agency representing and protecting their refugee status and right of return, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), has been a priority target for Israel and its allies. Campaigns by Israel and pro-Israel advocacy groups to delegitimise the agency are not new, yet, one of the most significant threats in recent times is unfolding without anywhere near the attention it merits.

On 14 July, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration signed a 2021-22 Framework for Cooperation with the UNRWA. Seemingly, it is an agreement in which the US will agree to provide funding to the agency as long as some conditions, outlined in the document, are met.

The reestablishment of US funding to the UNRWA comes after a full cessation in 2018 during the Trump administration, allegedly as part of organised attempts to delegitimise the refugee status of more than seven million Palestinians.

In 2019, the US and Israel were the only UN member states to vote against renewing UNRWA’s mandate.

Flawed agreement

The resumption of funding was welcomed by some as an improvement on the scorched-earth policy of the Trump years. However, while funds are desperately needed, the US-UNRWA agreement is significantly and critically flawed, as is laid out in a new report by the Palestinian Return Centre. The report claimed that within the document is another veiled move to delegitimise, depoliticise and dehistoricise the Palestinian refugee cause.

The agreement threatens and undermines the UNRWA’s work for Palestinian refugees, violating several of the agency’s core principles, including neutrality and independence.

Such restrictions may prevent a UNRWA staff member from commenting on their own lived experiences

In fact, the agreement effectively represents a US trusteeship over the UNRWA by conditioning funding and undermining the agency’s autonomy. This would affect its ability to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees in accordance with its mission.

By threatening the UNRWA’s financial stability, the US successfully pressured the agency into a politically motivated agreement, which gives outside parties the opportunity to police and interfere with humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees, weakening the autonomy of the agency.

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In seemingly being pushed into this agreement, the UNRWA violates another of it’s core principles: impartiality. The UNRWA is mandated to provide humanitarian action on the basis of need. One of the most alarming conditions of the agreement is the stipulation that Palestinian refugees who have had military training must be excluded from UN assistance. This forces the agency to deprive the rights of a large number of Palestinian refugees on the basis of affiliation and politics, including those who were forced into military conscription. This can be read as a direct attack on the identity of Palestinian refugees, and a move to deny the Palestinian refugee status.

Arguably, the US conditioning of funding to the UNRWA takes place under the pretext of neutrality. However, neutrality, as it is presented in the framework, is biased and far from being actually neutral.

The agreement sets out measures to police and discipline the UNRWA staff for alleged violations of neutrality, including in the ways in which they behave in class and on social media. UNRWA staff, like all UN staff, are not permitted to engage in “controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature” and are directed to follow strict, yet vaguely defined guidelines on neutrality. Such restrictions may prevent a UNRWA staff member from commenting on their own lived experiences, which could be considered “controversial”.

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Putting this into perspective, there are some 13,000 Palestinians employed by the UNRWA in the besieged Gaza Strip. There have been many cases where the homes of UNRWA employees have been hit by Israeli explosives, as seen during Israel’s offensives in 2008-09, 2012, 2014 and, most recently, in May of this year. These guidelines would prohibit UNRWA staff from speaking about the attacks that destroyed their homes.

The content of school textbooks is also included in the agreement. This may look marginal, but it is actually creating conditions to monitor and censor educational materials. Last month, the European Parliament also advanced an amendment that would condition funds to the UNRWA on changes to school textbooks, after the EU Commission allegedly found them to contain antisemitic materials. If the international community has the influence to inject politically motivated bias and control what is being taught, the foundation of the UNRWA’s work will be undermined, which risks affecting the Palestinian narrative about their national cause.

The agreement shows how the US is effectively tying the UNRWA’s hands by conditioning its funding and forcing it to act in accordance with US interests, rather than in the interests of Palestinian refugees. Hidden in plain sight, the document is another attack on the identity and well-being of Palestinian refugees, leaving the agency at risk of manipulation by pro-Israel parties.

Parties and organisations who advocate for the cause of Palestinian refugees must speak up for the UNRWA’s neutrality and independence. Protecting the UNRWA from Israeli-backed threats is key to ensuring the well-being of millions of Palestinians and upholding international human rights.

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