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UNRWA's Burden must be shared by all

Daoud Kuttab photo
Daoud KuttabAmman, Jordan
UNRWA's Burden must be shared by all
The unilateral US decision to cut aid to UNRWA should not be replaced by one side but by all members of the UN

With the United States unilateral and anti-peace decision to totally cut off aid to UNRWA, many calls have been made for oil-rich Arab states to make up for the agency’s deficit.

That would be a mistake.

In the 1980s, the Arab League pledged to support 7.8 per cent of UNRWA’s operating general budget. For many years, this has not been the case, even though Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, have often given substantial support to UNRWA’s emergency fund and have made generous contributions to certain projects, such as the rebuilding of camps in Gaza, Jenin and Lebanon’s Nahr Al Bared refugee camp.

Washington’s decision to stop funding UNRWA is unprecedented, mean and a cheap attempt at political blackmail. The US wants to reduce the number of Palestinians with the UN title of “refugees” by 90 percent. Apparently, following guidance from the right-wing Israeli government, US President Donald Trump’s administration wants to remove the refugee status from descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians who were forcibly kicked out of their homes in 1948 and have not been allowed to return. Established on December 8 1949, UNRWA’s mandate that is approved by the UN General Assembly calls for it to provide its services, “pending the just resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees”.

UNRWA’s mandate, overwhelmingly approved every five years since its establishment, defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict”, further indicating that “the descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration”.

At present, UNRWA’s humanitarian education, health and social support is extended to 5 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Jordan alone has 2 million registered refugees. Israel, which has recently declared itself the nation state of the Jewish people, claims that its presence in Palestine and its discriminator policy against the Palestinians is a divine right because Israelis are descendants of Jews who used to live in the Holy Land for a short period; some two thousand years ago.

The case of funding UNRWA and covering the deficit created by the US should not be placed solely on the shoulders of the Arab states. The international community, which passed UN resolution 194 that called on Israel to allow refugees to return and be compensated, must bear full responsibility for the perpetuation of this seven-decade old crisis.

Arab states, like all other members of the international community, must work on two parallel tracks. They must continue to press Israel to resolve the refugee issue, while at the same time equally share with others the burden of funding UNRWA.

In 2002 at the Arab League summit in Beirut Lebanon, the Arab states approved a landmark peace initiative that called among other issues for solving the Palestinian refugee issues. Article II section 2 called for the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194”.

The key word in the Arab peace initiative regarding solving the refugee problem is “to be agreed upon”, thus not impose any specific idea but giving both sides of the conflict the need to agree on any solution.

Having provided an important political compromise on solving the refugee question, Arab states should not be expected to bear the burden of the continuation of this humanitarian crisis. The onus should be on Israel to make serious efforts to resolving it, not to stonewall negotiations and then encourage the US, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reported to have done two weeks ago, to totally cut off aid from the UN agency.

There is an international agreement on the need for a sustainable funding plan for UNRWA. Even the US has been in favour of such an approach. Former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson told a press conference in Amman in February 2018, in the presence of Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, that the US considers UNRWA funding to be “an international commitment”. He said at the time that what is needed is to “put UNRWA on a more sustainable footing. It has never had a sustainable funding model. We really need to find a longer-term solution and we need to invite more donors to participate in the funding of UNRWA’s activities. There are many countries that we believe should be supporting that are not supporting, and we are going to be calling on them to do so”.

Support for a sustainable funding to UNRWA was also repeated on September 3rd by spokesperson of the US embassy in Amman Eric Barbee, who said to the Jordanian news site AmmanNet that “Palestinians deserve better than a funding mechanism that is in crisis every year.” Barbee, indicated that what is needed is a “new model and a new approach, because the current model has proved its ineffectiveness”.

While the statement of the US embassy’s spokesperson is disingenuous because it hides the political motivation behind the sudden and abrupt move, the idea of a new funding model is needed. One way around the present financial crisis of UNRWA would be to shift its entire budgetary responsibility to the United Nations general budget. At present, the UN budget only funds the salaries of the top UN officials, why not expand that and have the entire budget covered by the UN from member states each according to its ability and financial strength. Arabs states can and should make their share with the rest of the international community and not instead of it.

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