On December 13, the United Nations voted to extend the mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA). The vote was perceived by some as a defeat for Israel and the United States, and a triumph for international consensus on Palestinian rights.
There is no doubt that Washington and Tel Aviv must have felt humiliated as they have jointly worked to undermine UNRWA’s status and to fragment the pro-Palestine bloc. Judging from the outcome of the vote — 169 in favour, 9 abstentions and with the US and Israel voting against it — all US-Israeli plotting against Palestinian support seems to have failed.
One, however, must not rush into judgement as the US-led anti-Palestinian campaign at the UN is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. Particularly alarming is the fact that Washington is clearly following an Israeli blueprint aimed at denying Palestinians every political and diplomatic leverage. UNRWA is only one of many battlefields.
It was established in December 1949 per UN General Assembly Resolution 302. It began its operations in the aid of nearly one million Palestinian refugees in May 1950. Since then, its responsibility has grown to cover the needs of over 5 million Palestinian refugees scattered across Palestine and the Middle East.
When UNRWA was mandated to “provide assistance and protection for Palestinian refugees” seven decades ago, it was understood that the mandate was temporary
In August 2018, the US completely cut off its $364 million (Dh1.3 billion) annual contribution to UNRWA, and in January 2019, Israel began carrying out punitive measures to block the agency’s work in occupied East Jerusalem.
Since his advent to the White House, President Donald Trump has entrusted a team of pro-Israeli diplomats to undermine the status quo regarding Palestine at the UN. Top among those diplomats was the infamous Nikki Haley, who spent her two-year term as the US Ambassador to the international body coercing member states to vote against Palestinian rights and defending Israel’s violations of human rights.
Haley followed a clear and well-defined strategy. Along with Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner and few others, Haley aimed at demolishing the main pillars that defined the so-called Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the UN: the status of East Jerusalem as an occupied Palestinian city, the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, and the illegality of Jewish colonies in the occupied territories.
While one could argue that the US government has failed to sway the international community from its traditional position on Palestine, one must keep several key issues in mind.
First, on December 3, 13 countries — including Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Brazil — changed their long-standing position on Palestine when they voted against a resolution regarding the “Division for Palestinian Rights of the Secretariat”.
While this might not be considered a fundamental shift in international consensus regarding Palestinian rights, it is a notable shift nonetheless, as it has taken place within a relatively short period of time.
Second, Israel’s successes in reaching out to many African, South American and Asian countries — the bread and butter of Palestinian solidarity at the UN — should also sound alarm bells that traditional Palestinian support can no longer be taken for granted.
Finally, the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate must not, in itself, be considered a “victory”. When UNRWA was mandated to “provide assistance and protection for Palestinian refugees” seven decades ago, it was understood that the mandate was temporary, being linked to the repatriation of Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN resolution 194.
UNRWA’s temporary task became permanent, as there was never enough international will to force Israel to respect the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees. With time, the refugee status of most Palestinians became their only political identity.
Right to have rights
The reason that many Palestinians continued to fight for UNRWA is not only because of the services or the food rations that the organisation provides but also because without UNRWA there is no alternative status that will allow refugees to transition from being stateless to becoming full citizens in their own homeland.
Decades ago, German-American philosopher Hanna Arendt challenged the international definition of human rights arguing that without citizenship and nationality — which she saw as “the right to have rights” — one’s human rights cannot possibly and truly be protected.
It is for this very reason that millions of refugees find themselves taking on deadly journeys to escape the status of statelessness and the degradation of life on the run. All the jargon about human rights, equality and freedom mean absolutely nothing to them if they are denied the stability of being citizens and respected members of a nation.
What Israel and the US are hoping to do is to force Palestinians into permanent exile without obtaining the minimally required but meaningful human right of actual citizenship in their own Palestinian homeland.
By prolonging the UN agency’s mandate while offering no plan of action to restore Palestinian refugees to their country, they are also prolonging Palestinian pain and suffering.
The true victory is not for UNRWA’s operation of feeding hungry refugees to continue for three or 300 years more. The real moral triumph is when there are no longer Palestinian refugees needing to be fed in the first place.
— Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is ‘These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons’ (Clarity Press)