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UNRWA Aid Sustains Palestinian Misery

By absolving Israel and the Palestinian governments of responsibility, UNRWA is actually sustaining the sorry state of the Palestinians, Rana Baker writes.
Palestinians wait to receive food supplies inside a United Nations food distribution centre in Gaza City April 10, 2013. The main U.N. humanitarian agency for Palestinians said on Monday it was reopening its Gaza food distribution centres after suspending operations last week in response to violent protests over aid cutbacks. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem (GAZA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY) - RTXYFYU

When the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN branch catering for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, as well as in the Arab world, announced that it would cut its cash handouts citing budget shortfalls, dozens of affected Palestinians stormed one of the agency's main compounds in Gaza.

Obviously angered by the incident, a statement published on UNRWA's website declared that the organization would suspend its operations "until guarantees are given by all relevant groups that UNRWA operations can continue unhindered."

Hamas, the political party ruling Gaza since 2006, said that UNRWA's response is "unjustified."

Of course, it is not justified. And why should it be, when Hamas cannot afford to cover the needs of the population it governs? After all, Hamas does not receive aid and cash directly from the US and the European Union, as does the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. This, together with an inefficient, if not corrupt, system of governance and a laughable focus of efforts on trivial matters, further cripple the government's ability to reconcile the increasing poverty and unemployment.

According to UNRWA's website, 80% of the population in Gaza depends on foreign aid. The Gaza Strip houses an estimated population of 1.6 million, 1.1 million of whom are refugees registered at UNRWA.

In more apt terms, UNRWA relieves Hamas of many of its responsibilities, partially at least, toward the people it governs. From schooling, to employment, to providing aid and food rations, these are services UNRWA has been providing ever since it was established in 1949.

Hamas, on the other hand, as is the case with the Palestinian Authority, exonerates Israel from its obligations toward the people it is responsible for as an occupying authority, as specified under international law — a law Israel does not seem to take notice of, largely due to the international community's own singling out of Israel as a state above law.

The relationship between Israel, local governments, foreign aid and rights organizations is not new.

UNRWA was born in December 1949 when the United Nations General Assembly issued Resolution 302 calling for the assistance of Palestinian refugees. The resolution itself was based on recommendations made by the United Nations' Economic Survey Mission after the UN failed — and continues to fail — to implement Resolution 194, which mandates the Palestinian refugees' right to return to Palestine, and repatriation and compensation for the loss of their land and property.

Resolution 302 states that UNRWA's role is to “to carry out in collaboration with local governments the direct relief and works programs as recommended by the Economic Survey Mission” and to “consult with the interested Near Eastern Governments concerning measures to be taken by them preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects is no longer available."

The quotation above is quite telling for highlighting at least two major points: First, it is the recognition by the international community back then that local governments alone could not possibly fulfill the needs of the mass and ever-increasing flow of human beings into Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, thus the urgent need for an international body to contain the disaster.

It is here easy to assume that no "local governments" existed in either Gaza or the West Bank during that bloody period. Such an assumption totally disregards the fact that by 1949 both the Egyptian and Jordanian authorities in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively, assumed the roles of local governments, almost perfectly.  These roles, established and maintained by the armistice agreement, were important for the existence of UNRWA. After all, the international community through UNRWA had to "collaborate" with the local governments to bring order to the prevailing ordeal. 

But there is more to be said about this "collaboration."

The Arab world, newly liberated from, or still fighting for independence at the time of the Nakba, was largely hostile to the international community, which was primarily comprised of those very powers that had once ravaged, or were still ravaging, unabatedly throughout their lands. Therefore, to instill UNRWA into Palestine and other Arab countries, a measure of collaboration with the local governments was an imperative.

This is not to say that all Arab governments, let alone the refugees, showed no resistance to this collaboration. The government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Cairo, for example, accused UNRWA of laying the foundations for the resettlement of the refugees in Gaza and Egypt rather than pushing for their return.

Secondly, it seems that the international community believed that a permanent presence of international aid and relief organizations was unthinkable. Practical and political needs, however, proved them wrong; the practical and political being intertwined in this scenario.

The United Nations through UNRWA must have found itself something of a lifeline for the lives of thousands, now millions, of refugees given the Arab governments' obliviousness to their cause and being. At the same time, it is too late for the UN and its American and European funders to step out of the game and leave Israel alone in the field. Besides, a neocolonial presence in war-torn territories is always preferred.

When the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 between self-appointed representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, a plethora of US cash dollars and European aid began to flow into the hands of the newly-established Palestinian Authority. International aid organizations, UNRWA being one, proved to be vital for the continuity of the Palestinian Authority, which itself is vital for a costless and ceaseless Israeli occupation and colonization. Although to a lesser degree, Hamas is no different.

UNRWA, and all other NGOs, fulfill a double purpose. By absolving the local governments of their responsibilities through endless development and aid programs, they also help dig deeper roots for the status quo. In the end, no one is benefiting from the status quo more than Israel, whose occupation is becoming less costly by the day thanks to the efforts of international aid organizations, and the local Palestinian governments that depend on them.

It is quite ironic that from all the General Assembly resolutions concerning Palestine, only Resolutions 181, the partition of Palestine, and 302, the creation of UNRWA, were fully executed. The United Nations, the world's allegedly most prominent international organization aimed at promoting human rights, international law, and international security, succeeded in implementing only the resolutions that not only facilitated the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, but also entrenched Palestinian displacement and misery. Never mind Resolution 194.

Rana Baker, 21, is a student of business administration in Gaza. She writes for the Electronic Intifada.

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