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Palestinian Independence and the Perils of Humanitarian Aid

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UNRWA has become a substitute for Palestinian independence, and while its work is more vital than ever, it is also highlighting a discrepancy in international politics and the prioritising of violence over the Palestinians’ return to their land or financial compensation for their loss.

In January this year, the Biden administration announced its intent to restore humanitarian aid for Palestinians. Under former US President Donald Trump, aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was terminated, resulting in a deficit for the agency as it contended with the running of its usual health and education programmes, as well as the coronavirus pandemic last year. 

Throughout the Trump era, UNRWA was at one of its lowest points, particularly after other countries also decided to suspend their contributions following allegations of corruption at the administration level. The corruption allegations were used by the US as the premise upon which the Trump administration decided it would halt its financial contributions, even as the “deal of the century” diplomacy sought to alter the definition of what constitutes a Palestinian refugee – the aim being to end all refugee claims and as a result, dissolve the agency, which is mandated to work with generations of displaced Palestinians until a solution is found. 

With all focus on the agency as a service provider, the refugees are fast becoming removed from the main narrative. UNRWA needs over $1 billion to run its services efficiently for refugees living in camps spread across the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Acting US Envoy to the UN Richard Mills stated that the resumption of relations with the Palestinian Authority, based upon a return to the two-state politics, would “restore credible engagement” in terms of foreign diplomacy. Humanitarian aid for Palestinians, Mills was swift to note, would not affect US relations with Israel. “At the same time, I must be clear, the US will maintain its steadfast support for Israel,” Mills clarified. 

The resumption of humanitarian aid for Palestinians, therefore, is more about maintaining the political structure determining the Palestinian people’s refugee status. With Israel receiving over $3 billion annually, and the US ensuring Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over other countries in the region, which allows the Israeli government access to US advanced technology and first regional access, any humanitarian aid allocated to the Palestinian people will be meager in comparison to what Palestinians need as a result of US-funded, Israeli violence. 

UNRWA’s recent appeal for funding is tied to regional stability in the Middle East: “Meeting the human development, humanitarian and protection needs of Palestine refugees until there is a just and durable solution to their plight is an investment in stability in the Middle East region.” While UNRWA has stated on several occasions that it has no political mandate, it has no qualms about making political statements, as long as these do not outline the need for Palestinian independence. 

If the US resumed its aid to UNRWA, the agency will still be facing a deficit that can total up to $200 million. UNRWA’s financial collapse would indeed be of detriment to the Palestinian refugees dependent upon such aid for access to basic services. However, the long-term solutions for Palestinian refugees are not only being ignored, but not even considered. The understanding of humanitarian aid as a result of political violence is acknowledged at an international level. However, the absence of refugees’ political rights needs to be addressed in order to make humanitarian aid truly a temporary alleviation. 

UNRWA has become a substitute for Palestinian independence, and while its work is more vital than ever, it is also highlighting a discrepancy in international politics and the prioritising of violence over the Palestinians’ return to their land or financial compensation for their loss. If UNRWA needs $1 billion per year to implement its services, while Israel gets $3 billion annually from the US alongside impunity for its human rights violations, no amount of funding for UNRWA can bridge the gap which is caused by perpetual cycles of forced displacement.

Refugees and their descendants are the agency’s responsibility, but Israel continues to create refugees out of Palestinian civilians, thus creating similar cycles of hardship across the entire population, which is then fragmented depending on which aid each group qualifies for. UNRWA’s mandate is becoming impossible to fulfill, because there are too many stakeholders invested in Israel’s presence in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Palestinian people continue bearing the brunt of the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan, which was the first international consensus over Palestinian forced displacement. 

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