In a research conference: The role of UNRWA and the future of Palestinian refugees

8 December 2019
From left to right: Arafat Madi, Ilan Pappe, Ghada Karmi, Leila Hilal, Francesca Albanese and Karma Nabulsi. [Al Jazeera]

Prominent academics and researchers recommended increasing international support for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) with the goal of securing the future of services its provides to millions of refugees in light of the agency’s fiscal crisis. The recommendation was made during a research conference titled “70 Years after the Establishment of UNRWA: Resisting Crises and Building a Fair Future.” Held on Saturday, 20 November 2019, the conference was organised by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in concert with the Palestinian Return Center and the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Former UNRWA Commissioner Karen AbuZayd, who lived in the Gaza Strip from 2000 to 2010, spotlighted the difficult conditions of Palestinians in Gaza under the ongoing Israeli occupation, siege, and attacks. AbuZayd, who was the deputy commissioner of UNRWA from 2000 to 2005 before being appointed as commissioner, focused on the general dearth of freedoms in the besieged Gaza Strip, including the freedom to cross the Israeli-controlled border. This, she said, made it “impossible to enjoy, or even live what is considered a normal life elsewhere.”

Rachel Evers, the director of UNRWA legal affairs, said that UNRWA continues to provide for the basic needs of Palestinian refugees because there is still no political solution to their predicament, calling American claims that UNRWA is prolonging refugees’ problems “inaccurate.” On the contrary, she said, the existence of UNRWA is bound to the lack of a political solution as defined by the UN General Assembly. “Palestinian refugees are still refugees as long as there is no solution to their issue,” she said. “Today, more than five million Palestinian refugees qualify for UNRWA services in the major areas of its operations.” She said that thousands of refugees continue to be separated from their homes and families, and they keep the keys to the homes they were forced to leave by the Israeli occupation in 1948.

Michael Lynk, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, highlighted UNRWA’s role in maintaining the right of return as “a robust individual right,” adding that the agency is still the prime guarantor of the survival of Palestinian refugees and the symbol of the international community’s commitment to them. Lynk called for a just, lasting solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in the context of human rights and international law.

Hussam Zamlat, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom, said that the narrative of the Trump administration that UNRWA is prolonging the conflict is untrue and is a story propagated by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. The ambassador emphasised that the right of return is alive in the hearts of minds of Palestinians.

Anne Irfan, a lecturer in forced migration at Oxford University, said that support for UNRWA’s mission and its continued operation is not charity for Palestinians from the international community, but their legitimate right; cutting off the agency’s services would be a violation of Palestinian rights.

Michael Dumper, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, discussed the future prospects of UNRWA 70 years after its establishment. Saying it was indeed difficult to imagine UNRWA functioning with the same mandate for the next 20 years, he stressed the need to increase funding for the agency to help it continue to offer its services into the future.

In a panel chaired by Karen AbuZayd and Sophie Richter-Devroe, associate professor in the Women, Society and Development Program at the College of Humanities and Social Science at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, gave an introductory presentation about how young Palestinian refugees are challenging the concept of state and homeland from their particular perspective as refugees. According to Richter-Devroe, young Palestinian refugees see the camps as spaces that should be attached to the state, not as a place that can be erased when the occupation ends.

Independent researcher Terry Rempel addressed Israeli policies of dispossession that aim to deny Palestinians their right to return to their homes and homeland. Ahmed Hussein, the executive president of the Working Group for the Palestinians of Syria and the head of the media section of the Palestinian Return Centre, discussed the situation in the war-torn Palestinian refugee camps and communities in Syria and UNRWA operations there before and after the conflict. Hussein provided up-to-date data about the number of victims and the grave human rights abuses against Palestinian refugees all over Syria. During his presentation, he offered a set of recommendations, among them that UNRWA should expand its geographic scope to include Palestinian refugees registered in Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere.

The final panel of the conference, titled “Justice for Palestinian refugees,” was opened by Ghada Karmi, an honorary research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. Karmi said that the status of Palestinian refugees is political and so it is impossible for UNRWA to remain divorced from politics.

Ilan Pappe, a history professor and the director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, focused on the recent policies of the Trump administration to delegitimise the Palestinian cause, maintaining that these policies aim to forestall all avenues for a political resolution and instead make it a purely economic issue.

Leila Hilal, a researcher at the French Near East Institute in Amman, discussed the most effective ways to realise justice for Palestinian refugees. Francesca Albanese, a researcher with the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, said that the continual attacks on UNRWA are designed to ensure a resolution that ignores Palestinians’ right of return. In the case of Palestine, she said, international law does not serve justice, but rather Israel’s interests.

Karma Nabulsi, a professor of politics and international relations at Oxford University, gave a comprehensive description of UNRWA during the final panel, explaining that it is not an agency for return, but a reminder of international responsibility toward Palestinians.

The academic conference on the UNRWA crisis was convened in London on Saturday, organised by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in concert with the Palestinian Return Centre and the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. Held in the British Library, the conference consisted of four panels in which research papers were presented on the reality and challenges of UNRWA in light of its growing fiscal crisis and continued US pressure to end its mandate.

The director general of the Palestinian Return Centre, Tareq Hamoud, inaugurated the conference, stating, “UNRWA was and will always remain an international testament to the plight of Palestinian refugees, the nature of their identity and the status of the refugee, which will not change until we realise our right to return to our land.”

Hamoud said that 170 member states of the UN General Assembly had voted in mid-November 2019 to renew UNRWA’s mandate for another three-year term despite campaigns launched by the United States and Israel to revoke the agency’s mandate. He called the vote “an unequivocal rejection of the Israeli campaign to eliminate UNRWA and repeal the inalienable rights of Palestinian refugees, most importantly, the right of return.”

Hamoud said the Palestinian Return Centre intends to launch an international petition drive among Palestinian refugees “to express their firm rejection of all attempts to negate Palestinians’ inalienable right of return.”

Speaking on behalf of Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, researcher Arafat Madi stressed the importance of the conference, saying it offered a valuable opportunity to take a new look at UNRWA’s work 70 years after its establishment and highlight the challenges it faces, the resources its needs and the role that it can play in securing a better future for Palestinian refugees.