1. 2019 was a challenging year for UNRWA’s relationship with the international community: further funding withdrawals, another emergency appeal, a misconduct inquiry, concern over the upcoming mandate renewal, and most recently, the resignation of the Commissioner-General. These events offer an opportunity to reflect on UNRWA’s role going forward. What do you believe, should continue in its role, and what should change?
Karen Koning AbuZayd: UNRWA's role, when honestly observed and acted upon, does not need to change significantly, though always open to 'updating'. It must 'stay on track', and perhaps consider, where appropriate, engaging more 'politically' with interested and able actors. The elements are already present: the renewal of the Mandate has passed the first hurdle, should be confirmed later this year; the investigation of misconduct accusations, resulting in resignations of those culpable; a very competent and responsible Officer-in-Charge in place and UNRWA staff eager to carry on with their responsibilities correctly and enthusiastically, many of whom have done their best in this respect during the recent period.
Francesca Albanese: UNRWA is to serve Palestine refugees until a just and durable solution for them is found: this is the will of the UN General Assembly, as recently reaffirmed through an overwhelming majority vote renewing its mandate (until 2023). However, the opportunity to re-think the agency’s role has become a pressing issue since UNRWA’s critical loss of the US funding in 2018: this exposed the danger that dependency on donor state agendas represents for the refugees’ interest. Central to any ‘rethinking UNRWA’ should be the consideration that the situation of Palestinian refugees, which continues to be treated as a humanitarian issue to manage rather than a political, legal, and moral question to resolve, remains a political matter and an enduring responsibility of the international community. Accordingly, UNRWA’s role should be re-envisaged around thinking how it can better serve the refugee population and uphold their rights, moving beyond the short-term humanitarian and emergency role that is often ascribed to it. While in the short term the agency needs to maintain its programs and services, in the long term, UNRWA needs to engage on the topic of durable solutions for Palestine refugees. UNRWA has often argued that it does not have the mandate to pursue durable solutions, that other actors are responsible for that, and that its role is apolitical. While other actors are important players (PLO first and foremost), Palestine refugees—many of whom remain vulnerable to a precarious status or discrimination of different sorts—need and deserve an independent international entity engaged in upholding their inalienable rights and including return, restitution, and compensation, as well as other durable solutions the refugees may want to pursue. This is all the more justified by the fact that the UNCCP, i.e. the other part of the international regime set up for Palestine refugees in 1948 (notably mandated to find a political solution to the Question of Palestine and the refugees as part of it) has de facto ceased operations in 1964. The 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants (NYD) offers an important opportunity to rethink UNRWA’s role in this vein. The Declaration—which recommends comprehensive responses to refugee crises, especially those of protracted nature, through reaffirming the central role of international law and the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach in resolving refugee problems—was unanimously endorsed by the UNGA. As such, it provides a UN-sanctioned mandate—for UNHCR but also for UNRWA—for the elaboration of a comprehensive framework for just and durable solutions for Palestinian refugees. This instrument, and the implications it may have for the refugees, deserves to be fully explored.
Ardi Imseis: In its early years, UNRWA’s role was a source of both enmity and pride for Palestine refugees. On the one hand, but for the UN’s willful blindness regarding the likelihood of ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population following the General Assembly’s 1947 plan of partition and the vacuum of law and order left by Britain’s planned withdrawal from the scene which helped facilitate it, the fall of Palestine and the creation of the Palestine refugee problem would not have been so easily affected. On the other hand, as it became clear Israel had no intention of allowing a return of the Palestine refugee community that fled or were expelled in the wake of events in 1947-1949, the Agency’s registration and service provision became a vital medium of sustenance and support. As I have recently written, but for the work of UNRWA through the years the Palestinian people as a whole would be in far worse condition than they are today, hard though that is to imagine. To my mind, absent a resolution of the Palestine refugee problem in accordance with international law, UNRWA’s core and emergency service provision to the Palestine refugee community in its areas of operation should remain the bare minimum the international community offers to the refugees in line with its self-declared “permanent responsibility” for the question of Palestine. Two things that can be added by the General Assembly to UNRWA’s mandate are: (1) a more robust durable solutions function with the goal, at the very least, of shining greater light on the root causes of the problem and how it must be resolved in line with international law and practice; and (2) a commitment to end, once and for all, the systematic gender discrimination UNRWA employs in its definition of who qualifies as a “Palestine refugee” (more of which below and here).
Jo Kelcey: UNRWA’s core services must remain in place. Beyond this, the agency needs to be more responsive to the political rights and aspirations of the refugees. When UNRWA was created there was very little, if any, consultation with the refugee population about what UNRWA’s role should be. Instead, the American and British governments wanted to use UNRWA to resettle the refugees through works programs. Although its mandate has evolved, many of the issues the agency currently faces—funding shortfalls, short-term planning horizons, and even its management structures—can be traced back to tensions between the role that the refugees, host states and western donor governments have ascribed to the agency and, the power differentials that exist between these groups. The Israeli government has also sought to limit UNRWA’s role to a narrow definition of humanitarianism that supports the biological necessities of life and promotes a “neutral” stance on the conflict. So on the one hand, the refugees have been marginalized by a United Nations system that is premised on negotiating with and between state powers and on the other hand, the agency has been limited by discourses of humanitarianism that ignore the root causes of Palestinian dispossession. Addressing this is a huge task because it touches on more profound issues within the UN system. But rectifying some of the agency’s structural weaknesses around funding, mandate renewal processes and accountability to the refugees would be a good start.
Mouin Rabbani: There is no shortage of misconceptions regarding the role and mission of UNRWA. As its name suggests, its role since its establishment in the immediate aftermath of the 1948 Palestine War has been to provide humanitarian relief and development services to Palestine refugees within a geographically defined area of operations. It is not, and has not been, responsible for all Palestinian refugees, or for attaining the rights of Palestinian refugees as defined by international law. Nor is UNRWA the custodian of Palestinian refugee rights, which is a role reserved for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and indeed the international community as a whole. And while UNRWA, unlike UNHCR, is dedicated to a specific refugee population, claims that Palestinian refugees enjoy a privileged status are demonstrably nonsensical. UNRWA’s definition of a refugee is, in reality, more restrictive than that maintained by UNHCR. As UNRWA enters its eighth decade, it is perfectly reasonable to ask whether the passage of time and changing circumstances necessitate changes in the organization’s mandate. On the one hand, when UNRWA was established it was not anticipated that Israel would succeed in indefinitely prolonging the Palestinian refugee crisis. On the other, the existence and rights of Palestinian refugees are not subject to a statute of limitations. There is no shortage of proposals regarding the adaptation of UNRWA’s role and mandate. But to pass the smell test, these need to at least preserve, and where possible enhance, the rights and interests of the Palestinian refugee population. In the current environment, this could and perhaps should include a greater role for advocacy by UNRWA, and a similar expansion of the work the agency conducts with respect to protection. There are various organizational mechanisms through which this could be implemented, and they deserve careful consideration. A further challenge is that growing numbers of Palestinian refugees live outside UNRWA’s area of operations. Services present a more serious challenge. There is little justification for the suggestion that core services should be reduced or eliminated because the Palestinian refugee question remains unresolved on account of Israeli intransigence and international acquiescence. This would be handing ethnic cleansers the world over an undeserved victory while simultaneously delivering a body blow to international humanitarian law. At the same time, it is worth considering how UNRWA assistance can be better targeted and perhaps enhanced for those most in need of its services, which may involve a reduction for others. This would require intensive consultations with the PLO, host governments, UNRWA’s funders, and of course the refugee community. The Question of Palestine remains the international question par excellence, and the Palestinian refugee question has since 1948 been the most visible expression of this unresolved conflict. UNRWA has for seventy years been the most prominent institutional expression of international responsibility for the Question of Palestine, and any revisions of its role must preserve this reality.
Terry Rempel: The inter-related challenges UNRWA faces going forward into 2020, as the question suggests, are both financial and political. While resource mobilization has quite rightly received considerable attention given the immediate impact of donor shortfalls on the Agency’s capacity to deliver health, education and social services in line with international standards, the organized and sustained campaign by individuals and organizations aligned with right-wing and neo-conservative movements in Israel, the United States and elsewhere to undermine UNRWA’s credibility raises the question of whether sufficient attention has been accorded to political challenges such as these. Meeting funding needs in the absence of a political solution, the growing number of refugees and recurrent emergencies has been a predictable challenge. Even the withdrawal of US funding was not entirely unforeseeable with previous administrations, most notably, perhaps, under President Reagan, having toyed in various degrees with the idea. Viewed from a historical perspective, the political challenges UNRWA faces today arguably seem to be equally if not entirely predictable. The impact these challenges have on resource mobilization and the Agency’s ability to meet the needs of Palestine refugees raises important questions. Does UNRWA’s humanitarian mandate limit or constrain its ability to meet political challenges like those mentioned above? Can or should the Agency better address such challenges and if so how? Does it have the capacity to do so and if not what can be done to enhance and strengthen UNRWA’s ability to better foresee and meet current and new political challenges? Should Agency donors assume a more prominent role, and if so, what can they do to assist UNRWA in light of persistent and ill-founded attacks on the Agency’s credibility such as those referred to above? Is there a role for other stakeholders, e.g., multilateral organizations, non-governmental organizations, refugees, and what might they do to assist?
2. As a superpower with a strong influence, the U.S. approach to the Israel-Palestine has garnered strong criticism by world leaders in the region. How is the Trump Administration’s strategy going to affect UNRWA Palestine refugees?
Karen Koning AbuZayd: We need to face the fact that as long as the current US President is in office, it will be difficult to count on, or even lobby for a return to what has been reliable support, both financial and political, in the past. Today's 'non-neutral' and politicized US-UNRWA relationship impedes a positive approach to UN and UNRWA requests and genuine humanitarian needs. Supporting a strong UNRWA staff presence, even if only two persons, e.g., in UN NY, could keep the issues and achievements of UNRWA on the agenda there, and working closely with the very active (and supported by influential persons) UNRWA USA in Washington would improve information flow with the US Government, hopefully with better financial results. (Liaising, if possible, with some leaders admired by the current US president, might help make a difference.)
Francesca Albanese: The US has historically played an ambiguous role vis-à-vis the Palestinians: on the one hand, it has provided political and military support to Israel and on the other, it has offered humanitarian aid to the Palestinians to paper over the cracks. However, the Trump administration’s approach to the Palestinian question has been especially damaging including through the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘undivided’ capital, the break-down of diplomatic relations with the Palestinian leadership, the appallingly condescending attitude toward the Palestinians with its ‘deal of the century’, and most recently its proclamations that Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine are “legal”. The ongoing violations of Palestinians’ rights will only stop when Israel faces serious diplomatic and political consequences for their actions: this cannot happen until the U.S. changes its approach the Israel-Palestine situation (unlikely to happen with the constellation of openly pro-Israel characters in key strategic positions of the current US Administration). For UNRWA and the Palestine refugees, the current US (and Israel’s) approach is damaging on many levels. The financial crisis it ignited hampered vital humanitarian operations, and it was only through impressive fundraising that UNRWA avoided more catastrophic consequences. The ongoing political attacks against UNRWA by the Trump administration have also created a climate of uncertainty that is damaging both the agency and the refugees. A case in point is the false charge that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee crisis by registering ‘illegitimate’ refugees (i.e. Palestine refugee descendants). That is dangerous because it distracts from the reality that both the protracted nature of the Palestinian refugee situation and the conflict are of a political nature and require political resolve that goes beyond UNRWA’s functions. In addition, the current failure to deal with the political dimensions of Palestinian dispossession feeds into a culture of impunity that only emboldens Israel’s agenda, corroborating a sense of marginalization and distrust vis-à-vis the international community among the refugees, half of whom are youth.
Ardi Imseis: The Trump administration’s attack on UNRWA and the Palestine refugees will continue to have a negative impact on the ability of the Agency to discharge its mandate of providing humanitarian aid, protection, and assistance to 5.5 million Palestine refugees in occupied Palestine, including East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. This attack has taken two forms: (1) the abrupt cancellation of US funds to the Agency; and (2) a series of spurious and unfounded claims about the Agency’s purported role in perpetuating the Palestine refugee problem. The US decision to pull its funding will continue to reverberate in the immediate term, requiring the Agency to redouble its efforts to ensure it can cover its shortfall through other donors. Efforts will also have to be made to ensure other states do not follow the US in this regard. As to the spurious claims made about the Agency, including claims based on patently erroneous understandings of relevant international law as it relates to the Palestine refugee problem, the threat is not as immediate. But given the level of military, economic and political influence exerted by the US in the world, great care must be taken to ensure this narrative does not take hold. With the exception of a handful of small island states in the South Pacific and increasingly Canada and Australia, this narrative has largely failed to break the rules-based international consensus long-established at the UN. In this respect, effort should be made to continue to show how and why Trump’s attack on UNRWA and the Palestine refugees are not one-offs, but rather part and parcel of his administration’s assault on the post-WWII multilateral rules-based order, whether it be in respect of other areas of vital work performed by the UN, climate change/justice, international criminal justice, trade, etc.
Jo Kelcey: The US government has long played a duplicitous role in the Palestine refugees. Over successive administrations, US support for UNRWA was shaped by American economic and security interests in the region more than genuine humanitarian concern for the refugees. But the Trump administration differs in its intent to dismantle the agency altogether with no concern for the consequences. Its decision to defund UNRWA has already had a devastating impact causing job losses and the reduction of much-needed services in communities that are experiencing severe hardship. A pressing concern is what’s going to happen to the 500,000 children attending UNRWA schools? Since education accounts for the lion’s share of the agency’s budget and most of its staff, reducing or eliminating UNRWA’s schools remains a very real threat.
Mouin Rabbani: The Trump administration’s assault on UNRWA represents an agenda that far transcends US hostility to the agency—which for many years has been as relentless as it has been bipartisan. Its real target is the Palestinian refugee question, and Washington has made clear that it seeks to redefine Palestinian refugees so that they effectively cease to exist and are removed from the agenda. This forms part of a broader US-Israeli approach to unilaterally resolve the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the conflict itself, on the principle that might makes right. The extent to which this strategy will succeed depends on the response of the international community and the Palestinians. Thus far, these have shown little indulgence for Washington’s embrace of the most extremist agenda on the Israeli political spectrum. With specific respect to UNRWA, the international community has stepped into the breach and made up the funding shortfall, and the withdrawal of US funding has had the unanticipated benefit that the agency no longer needs to waste valuable time and resources jumping through Washington’s endless hoops. In the broader scheme of things, verbal declarations and funding are not going to provide an effective response to US power and Israel’s transformation of reality on the ground. The window for passivity and timidity has long closed. Absent a meaningful political response, the US and Israel can inflict significant and transformative damage. Thus far, the Trump administration’s policies—and indeed those of previous administrations—have had an at best negligible impact on either UNRWA or the status of Palestinian refugees. But complacency is not an option moving forward.
Terry Rempel: The withdrawal of US funding obviously does little to enhance human development and security of refugees. For the time being, however, the administration’s apparent gamble that such tactics will eliminate the “refugee issue” from the political agenda appears to have failed. In 2018 other donors anted up to plug the budget gap while UN member states voted overwhelmingly this past week to renew UNRWA’s mandate. Whether donors will continue to do so in the absence of US funding over the medium term, whether changes in government elsewhere will lead to policy shifts vis-a-vis UNRWA and Palestine refugees, and what this might mean when the Agency’s mandate comes up for renewal once again in three years is another issue that should be monitored closely. That said, the responsiveness of states to UNRWA’s financial troubles to date should not be conflated with or interpreted solely as a vote in favour of the Agency nor for that matter as a demonstration of support for refugee rights. While it likely reflects pushback if not rejection of President Trump’s approach and more broadly continued belief in the importance of multilateralism, it also appears to be an attempt to bolster the “two-state solution”, that is to say, the status quo, as evident from comments of various UN member states in the fall session of the Assembly. If this is accurate, there is a certain paradox at play in that Oslo effectively removed the “refugee issue” from a multilateral framework—understood here as one outside the United Nations—while continued support for UNRWA appears to be driven in part by an appeal to multilateralism. How this paradox is addressed will have significant implications for refugees. The other question that perhaps should be asked is whether the Trump administration’s approach, which effectively sidelined the United States as a political broker, creates an opportunity for a (re)newed multilateral engagement on the “refugee issue” in particular and the struggle over Palestine/Israel generally based on international law and relevant UN resolutions. This, in turn, raises important and as yet unresolved questions about a common political vision or framework, what that might be, and how agreement on and ownership of it might be achieved. Equally important, it would seem, are questions relating to political will, what that is and how broad-based support for such a vision or framework can be secured, maintained and enhanced. At the same time, viewing Palestine/Israel in the long-duree raises significant questions about the limitations of multilateralism and international law along with effective strategies to encounter them.
3. The mandate renewal is not as much of a concern as is the financial stability of the Agency. Moving forward, how can the Palestinian diaspora, the international community, and the UN collaborate to resolve this issue?
Karen Koning AbuZayd: The answer to the question rests on the word 'collaborate' with the partners mentioned: the Palestinian diaspora and the international community, both of which have many 'members' who believe in UNRWA and the Palestinian cause. Creating opportunities to engage more regularly with these groups in selected locations could make a difference, as has been proved by the interest and additional funding provided over the recent period by both old and new actors and donors.
Francesca Albanese: Chronic budget shortfalls have been part of Agency’s landscape since the early days of its operation. Lacking a solution to the Palestinian refugee question, UNRWA has been faced by growing humanitarian necessities on top of its core services for the growing (needs of the) refugee population in a volatile context punctuated by (often man-made) emergencies. The shock created by the withdrawal of the US contribution has exposed the consequences of large reliance (i.e. dependence) on a single donor—the US—which (in recent years) has not shown much sympathy for the agency. The crisis has forced UNRWA to explore creative solutions, diversifying its source of funding, expanding its base of donor states and funding streams, establishing new partnerships and trust funds, and appealing for both corporate and private support. In addition, it could more proactively seek private financing on a continuous basis, in line with the model pioneered by UNICEF, which allows the agency to build more resilience to financial shocks from political developments. In that respect, the Palestinian diaspora could be an important partner both by providing direct financing and by mobilizing resources in their host countries. However, the financial crisis will hardly be resolved without tackling the root causes of many refugees’ dependency on UNRWA’s assistance beyond core services. For example, addressing the ‘de-development’ that has been imposed on Gaza through the over ten-year-long blockade, and allowing Palestine refugees' right to work without discrimination in Lebanon, would help foster refugees’ self-reliance and lift somewhat the pressure on UNRWA. That is why no efforts should be spared in using all political avenues for political changes in this respect. Also, while donors may have cynically developed a sense of fatigue vis-à-vis the Palestinian refugee ‘problem’ that seems to have no end in sight, they must be reminded that the longevity of the Palestinian refugee question is the lack of political solutions, which each UN member state remains ultimately responsible for. While UNRWA should take the lead in developing a long term strategy encompassing solutions, no results can be achieved without political and financial support from donors, and, last but not least, strong buy-in by Palestinians, including the refugees and the political leadership, and Arab states. Many in the Palestinian diaspora, play a strategic role in maintaining the attention on the Palestinian situation high, recalling international obligations towards both Palestine and the Palestinian people and a principled approach to Palestinian refugee rights. This effort should continue and grow, with hopefully many more, especially in Europe and the Americas, or elsewhere they have attained a sense of stability, creating a unified front for Palestinian refugees and their rights.
Ardi Imseis: More effort must be expended to find funds to support the Agency’s vital humanitarian aid, protection and assistance functions, including from non-traditional donor bases. In recent years, great strides have been made by the Agency to do this, especially in relation to GCC-based and private donors. These efforts must be redoubled.
Jo Kelcey: Finances have been a problem for UNRWA ever since it was established. The agency’s voluntary funding structure reflected the prevailing assumption in 1949/50 that the crisis—and UNRWA itself—would be short-lived. The US Department of State also settled on a multilateral approach to be implemented through a temporary UN agency (after considering a bilateral aid program) because it didn’t want to be financially beholden to the refugees. This set-up purposefully left the agency susceptible to funding shortfalls and the politics of donor governments. Indicative of this, UNRWA has experienced at least one major financial crisis every decade, that resulted in service cut-backs. It’s beyond time to shift the agency to a more secure and predictable financial footing. A guaranteed annual budget funded through UNGA member state contributions would allow UNRWA to plan and implement its services more effectively and efficiently. It would also mitigate the agency’s susceptibility to funding contingencies imposed by donors that don't necessarily address the needs or priorities of the refugees.
Mouin Rabbani: The simplest way to resolve the financial challenges confronting UNRWA would be for its funders to muster the political will to resolve the Palestinian refugee question pursuant to the relevant UN resolutions and the international consensus. In the interim, it seems likely that UNRWA will continue to experience a reality of growing commitments and decreasing resources. It seems reasonable to assume that there will continue to be a positive correlation between the prominence of the Question of Palestine, and with it the Palestinian refugee question, on the international agenda, and funding levels available to the agency. That is the stark reality that any initiative to put UNRWA on a more stable financial footing will need to contend with.
Terry Rempel: Building in part on past recommendations by UNRWA’s Working Group on Financing, along with more current ideas in circulation among humanitarian actors, the Secretary-General’s 2017 special report offered some additional ways, e.g., special trust funds, to secure “sufficient, sustainable and predictable” funding. As with past funding crises, many of the Agency’s traditional donors have increased their contributions while new donors have come forward with added funds with regional partners playing a particularly significant role. While financial contributions from other sources appear minimal, private actors along with community-based organizations and individuals, in particular, arguably play an important complementary role in awareness-raising, solidarity, and advocacy. The question is whether and how these apparent shifts can be maintained and enhanced if the immediate funding crisis transitions back into the more predictable and chronic budget shortfalls. With donor states having the primary responsibility and carrying the vast share of the burden in financing UNRWA operations, appeals largely appear to underscore the effectiveness and efficiency of Agency programmes and their contribution to peace and security in the region. This is a long-standing narrative. One question that arises is whether and how UNRWA appeals to or tailors its appeals to the interests of specific states and to what effect? Another relates to the concomitant role, if any, of the Agency’s Advisory Commission and more broadly donor states generally. That UNRWA annually ranks donors in terms of their overall contributions to the Agency raises the question of whether additional indicators of “generosity” - e.g., percentage of GNI, ODA or compared to UN assessment of membership dues—might provide effective advocacy tools? Related to this are questions about political risks and whether UNRWA is appropriately placed to issue and appeal for funds on the basis of such indicators. Long recognized by donor states as one of the UN’s most efficient agencies, there are only so many ways that UNRWA can secure additional efficiencies, as others have pointed out, without sacrificing the quality of its services or cutting programmes themselves as has been suggested in the past with regard to education. Burden-shifting, that is to say, the transfer of health, education and social welfare programmes to host states, meanwhile, appears to make little economic or political sense with potential costs and disruptions outweighing possible benefits. Suggestions for cost-sharing through graduated fees and eligibility ceilings through means-testing, among other strategies, raise equally difficult questions about “taxation without representation” along with the identification and choice of appropriate indicators not to mention concerns about further fragmentation of the Palestinian people. That there appear to be few viable strategies beyond UNRWA’s existing, albeit enhanced, approach to resource mobilization, in turn, seems to raise the question about if and whether the Agency should and is able to take an expanded role in the promotion of solutions for refugees?
4. What are the issues rarely spoken of when it comes to UNRWA’s operations in Palestine and neighboring host countries that need to be addressed?
Karen Koning AbuZayd: To mention a single issue, frankly, refugees vs. citizens, especially when the refugees appear to be faring better in host countries. This, of course, is not an issue for Palestine refugees only, in many cases, quite the opposite, until refugees appear to be better off than or reducing the benefits of citizens.
Francesca Albanese: A not often (or not enough!) spoken about issue in UNRWA’s area of operation is the discrimination experienced by particular groups of Palestinian refugees e.g. those displaced in 1967 or following turmoil in the region, including those who have moved across the Arab region, such as the ‘ex-Gazans’ in Jordan and the ‘non-ID’ in Lebanon. Their legal status in the host countries is more precarious and they are not adequately encompassed by UNRWA’s mandate, which leaves hundreds of thousands of people across UNRWA’s areas of operations exposed to “protection gaps”. Also largely under the radar is the connected continuous exodus of Palestinian refugees from UNRWA area of operations including toward places that do not represent a safe port of call for refugees (South East Asia is just one an example). Also, further debate should take place on the implications of granting citizenship to Palestine refugees—and other Palestinian displaced after 1948—in Arab countries, while allowing them to maintain their Palestinian identity and ‘refugee character’ (for lack of better word) under relevant UN resolutions also merits discussion (i.e. without undermining the right they are entitled to under relevant UN resolutions). Research reveals that those Palestinian refugees who can afford it, do all they can to acquire citizenship in any country, even if they then continue to leave in the Arab region: understandably, any citizenship is better than none. The last issue is a problem of terminology and frameworks. An increasing number of experts are joining the Palestinians in denouncing Israeli practices of subjugation and annihilation of the Palestinian people as encompassing a settler-colonial model, characterized by ‘apartheid’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Instead of dismissing these terms as politically loaded, the international community should be encouraged to look into these characterizations, consider to what extent they are realistic and address them as a consequence. Such clarity would foster a more honest and realistic appreciation of the situation of Palestinian refugees and UNRWA’s operations and constraints.
Ardi Imseis: As noted above, the General Assembly should consider expanding UNRWA’s mandate to cover durable solutions and end ongoing gender discrimination in eligibility for UNRWA registration. As it stands, the Agency has no durable solutions mandate, which necessarily hampers its ability to discharge its protection mandate to the fullest. While it is clear that without the political agreement of key states, most particularly Israel and the host governments, Palestine refugees will not be able to exercise their internationally guaranteed legal rights under any durable solutions scheme, vesting UNRWA with an express mandate over durable solutions will at the very least empower it to better frame what it does against the root causes of the Palestine refugee problem (i.e. ethnic cleansing from 1948 to the present; systematic and widespread race-based discrimination; etc.). At the very least, this will help the UN retrench the Agency’s work in the international rules-based order it was founded to preserve and protect (and which is currently under attack), and place the Organization on the front-foot in maintaining control over the falsified narrative about UNRWA presently being bandied about. In a similar vein, more needs to be done to support UNRWA’s efforts to end gender discrimination in its criteria for eligibility for registration as a Palestine refugee. Gender discrimination is a scourge that no one can deny still takes place in the world. That is why efforts to outlaw it on the international plane through the progressive development of international human rights law at the UN since 1948 have been so pivotal. In view of the fact that the Organization rightly holds itself out as a standard-bearer of the international legal order, including international human rights, the time has come for this wrong to be finally put right at UNRWA. To be sure, as a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly, only the Assembly is empowered to instruct and furnish UNRWA with the financial ability to do this. This will not be easy, particularly under the current climate. But it must, as a matter of principle, be done.
Jo Kelcey: There’s so much about UNRWA’s operations - past and present - that merit reasoned and nuanced debate. One example is the very important role that UNESCO played in shaping UNRWA’s education program and which has received little attention. For many years the education program was known as the “UNRWA/UNESCO education programme” and UNESCO, rather than UNRWA, was responsible for determining education policies. This included a largely unsuccessful review of all host state textbooks after 1967 to determine their “appropriateness” as well as an attempt to develop a history and geography curriculum for Palestine refugees in Lebanon. These experiences provide an alternative perspective on contemporary debates regarding UNRWA’s curricula policies which tend to get hijacked by polemical accusations.
Mouin Rabbani: UNRWA is under consistent pressure from the host authorities to conduct its operations in accordance with their various agendas, but is rarely free to discuss these. There is also a broad misconception about UNRWA’s mandate and mission—what it is and what it is not. Over the years an additional factor is that UNRWA’s operations are taken for granted, meaning that there is insufficient discussion of why the agency and its operations (need to) continue to exist.
Terry Rempel: A recent opinion poll of refugee youth on the practicality of return conducted by BADIL Resource Center suggests that even in the absence of a political process that would presumably lead to solutions for refugees the question of international responsibility including UNRWA’s potential role (and the UNCCP among others) is not absent from political discourse. Indeed, it is may well be the failure and demise of negotiations between the PLO and Israel as survey findings suggest that gives this issue political currency. Given the widely-acknowledged view that states have the primary responsibility for a political solution and what we know from practice about linkages between refugee participation and the durability of solutions, the findings in the same poll about reasons for the absence of a popular refugee movement, including fear of Israeli persecution and lack of a unified Palestinian vision underscore the wider challenges in play. A commonly-held view within and outside UNRWA appears to be that the Agency can do little more than it already does in relation to solutions for Palestine refugees. That essentially involves “peace-servicing”, that is to say, contributing to refugees’ human development in the absence of a political solution on the one hand and on the other reminding states of the urgent need for a political solution. UNRWA’s ability to effectively and efficiently carry out the first is obviously impacted by the financial and political challenges discussed above. The degree to which the Agency carries out the latter implicates the former which in turn raises serious questions about any expansion in mandate with respect to the promotion of solutions for refugees in line with international law and relevant UN resolutions. Having UNHCR assume such a role, as some suggest, raises equally problematic political, legal and practical questions. If refugees’ human development and security are ultimately dependent on a political solution, the question of UNRWA’s role appears to a large extent unavoidable. One way to look at the issue might be to ask whether there is a “middle” way forward? Some hints in this direction can be found in the Agency’s elaboration of its protective role. Drawing upon what we know from principles and practices elsewhere, adjusted where necessary to the specific circumstances of Palestine/Israel, are there things that the Agency can or should do to “advance” and/or prepare for durable solutions keeping in the mind the importance of “shelf-life” or relevance over the medium to long-haul? This essentially aligns with the diplomatic/technical division of labour between the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine and UNRWA and is also in keeping with some of the work done during active negotiations in the past. Another approach would be to ask and (re)consider how what UNRWA does today contributes to durable solutions and if there are programme elements and operational activities that should or could be enhanced in this respect. This is, in a way, similar to Agency efforts to reframe its programmes through the lens of human development, that is to say, (re)envisioning everything that the Agency currently does within a durable solutions framework. States might also consider a partial (technical) re-activation of the UNCCP along the above lines which would enable UNRWA to focus on what it currently does best without the additional financial, political and administrative issues that an expanded mandate and/or expanded set of activities might entail. This would require some revision to the Commission by the Assembly given that the US is one of three members alongside France and Turkey. None of these approaches are mutually exclusive. What they have in common is an effort to identify what can be done in the absence of and without prejudice to the primary responsibility of state actors, how it can contribute to durable solutions and which international organization/s are best placed to carry out the work.
[This roundtable was originally conducted and compiled by the Institute for Palestine Studies' Palestine Square in December 2019.]