UNRWA is struggling to avert a critical financial crisis that threatens the essential operations of the 60-year-old UN agency for Palestine refugees.
At a recent briefing in Amman, UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbul warned that the current deficit stands at $101 million and that the agency cannot guarantee any services beyond September for the millions of Palestine refugees — and now Syrian refugees as well — it serves all over the region.
Financial crises and pressure are, unfortunately, not new for UNRWA.
Intensive Israeli efforts to abolish UNRWA altogether followed the launch of the so-called peace process in Madrid in the early 1990s.
In the same ludicrous manner as blaming a hospital for creating patients, Israel and its lobby groups claimed that UNRWA’s existence perpetuates what they see as the “problem” of Palestinian refugees.
Abolishing UNRWA, they hoped, would remove political pressure on Israel to respect the rights of the people it has exiled and dispossessed.
Israel’s sustained campaign against UNRWA has included varied accusations, including that the agency’s schoolbooks contained anti-Israel “incitement”, that refugee camps were incubating radicalisation and “terror”, that the UNRWA education system encouraged violence and hatred, and that UNRWA personnel aided Palestinian resistance.
The many investigations conducted on all such accusations never yielded any meaningful evidence to back up these politically motivated charges.
UNRWA’s repeated appeals for funding were often countered by Israel and its lobbies, which claimed that the money went for the wrong purpose.
Probably the only reason such anti-UNRWA campaigns have failed is donors’ fears of the scale of the new tragedy that would inevitably follow a total collapse of its services.
There were also repeated Israeli military attacks on UNRWA schools, food stores, social centres, clinics and shelters, killings and injuries of members of its overwhelmingly Palestinian staff.
In each of Israel’s recent assaults on Gaza, UNRWA, like the Palestinian people it serves, has been a target and victim of Israeli rockets and bombs.
The destruction Israel inflicted on Gaza added enormously to the strain on UNRWA’s budget and capacities.
As Krahenbul explained, UNRWA currently serves more than two million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, 1.2 million in Gaza, 700,000 in the West Bank, 300,000 in Lebanon and 600,000 in Syria.
The numbers in Syria have been on the rise as a result of the four-year old war there, as more Palestinians who did not need UNRWA services earlier are now seeking urgent help.
Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer left more than 120,000 people homeless, with UNRWA compelled to find them temporary shelter.
The agency also supports 886,000 people who, given the catastrophic state of Gaza’s economy due to the Israeli siege, are entirely dependent on direct aid from it.
UNRWA’s operations have been ongoing since 1950.
In the aftermath of the 1948 pre-planned and systematic ethnic cleansing of most of the Palestinian population by the Zionist militias that set up Israel, the UN decided to establish the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWAPR), later known just as UNRWA.
It was to be entirely funded by voluntary contributions from UN member states, with some funding coming from the regular UN budget, mainly to cover international staff.
Arab states have generally been reluctant to take a key role in financing UNRWA as a result of their persistent stance that the ongoing plight of the Palestinian refugees is a UN responsibility.
Arab states did not want financial involvement to shift political liability or to absolve the UN of tackling the grave injustice inflicted on the Palestinians by an aggressive colonialist Zionist scheme.
Clearly, no one at the time expected the Palestine issue to remain unresolved for so long, let alone almost seven decades.
Since UNRWA took up its mandate on May 1, 1950, it has accumulated an impressive record of meeting health and education needs of millions of Palestinian refugees in Arab host countries.
It is often forgotten that all but a small handful of UNRWA’s thousands of health, education and other professionals are themselves Palestinians, often from the communities where they work.
Many thousands more were employed in administration, social work, logistics, construction, management and other matters.
The majority of prominent Palestinian personalities who had occupied top jobs in the former Palestinian British Mandate government were recruited by UNRWA to handle equally important assignments.
In order to cope, the UN agency built an administrative structure much like government ministries, handling each of its assigned tasks.
The department of education ran an entirely free school system for every Palestinian child anywhere. So was the department of health, which provided every Palestinian with the required healthcare through a vast structure of permanent or makeshift clinics, medications, hospitalisation, qualified doctors and rehabilitation centres.
Most department of health employees were also Palestinians. All such services continue till today.
Refugee students who did well in UNRWA primary and secondary schools were offered scholarships to pursue their studies abroad in all fields and specialisations.
I, myself, am deeply indebted to the UNRWA education department in Jerusalem, under the leadership of Abdullah Salah, for granting me a scholarship to study and earn a degree in history from the American University of Beirut in 1959.
Although I finished my secondary school in a private school in Bethlehem, Al Ummah College, I was still entitled as a refugee, and on the basis of my school results to the opportunity.
When I graduated, I was instantly offered a teaching job first at the UNRWA school at the Dheisha refugee camp, near Bethlehem, later at the UNRWA Teacher Training Centre in Ramallah, which offered a two-year training course preparing teachers for UNRWA schools all over Jordan.
UNRWA, therefore, did a tremendous job, not only in providing the refugee population with the needed “relief”, but “works” as well.
It offered Palestinians opportunities of education and a relatively dignified life while awaiting international justice — pure mirage so far — and restoration of normal life back home.
By any standards, UNRWA’s magnificent achievements must be recognised as a bright chapter in the history of the UN, perhaps the brightest.
Its mission has been often undermined by politically motivated campaigns and its resources have been kept at subsistence level — much as Israel is now doing to Palestinians in Gaza.
For these reasons, at least, and for the fact that no solution for this historic tragedy is around the corner, UNRWA must be supported and fully enabled to continue its essential work.
By Hasan Abu Nimah
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