Netanyahu’s call to close UNRWA is an attack on refugee rights, say analysts

Palestinian political analysts have agreed that the demand by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to be closed is an attack on refugee rights. The legitimate right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land is, they agree, the “basis of the Palestinian cause.”

Netanyahu’s argument is that the Palestinian refugees have their own agency — UNRWA — whereas, in his opinion, the issue should come under the umbrella of the UN High Commission for Refugees. According to interviews conducted by Anadolu, however, most of the experts on the matter expect the UN to ignore the Israeli leader’s demand.

“At the moment, UNRWA keeps the Palestinian refugee issue alive in international forums,” explained Dr Mekhemar Abu Saada. He pointed out that the agency provides essential services to over 80 per cent of the Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, along with millions more across the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City believes that Netanyahu seeks to negate the refugee status of the Palestinians and thus end their right of return by default.

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“Israel continues to incite the world against UNRWA and its operations,” he said. The Israeli leader’s latest demand is part of regular efforts to discredit UNRWA and persuade donor countries to cut or end their support for the agency. Despite being an official UN body, UNRWA is entirely dependent on voluntary donations from UN member states for its income, and it faces a seemingly perpetual financial crisis, forcing it to reduce some vital services to the refugees.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has defended UNRWA’s role in achieving peace and stability in the region. His Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters at UN headquarters in New York on Monday that Guterres is “concerned” about recent public criticisms of UNRWA and the safety of its operations. The secretary general called on all UN member states to continue their support for UNRWA so that it can continue with its essential role with integrity and efficiency, serving the Palestinian refugees until a “just and lasting” solution is reached.

Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres [Fatih Erel /Anadolu Agency]

Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres [Fatih Erel /Anadolu Agency]

Writer Mustafa Al-Sawaf thinks that the Israeli prime minister wants to “kill the only witness” to the refugees’ daily suffering because he wants the refugee issue to be forgotten. “Israel is always putting pressure on UN bodies to stop them supporting the Palestinians.” This, it is claimed, is part of the siege of the Palestinian people. “Israel wants to stop anyone and everyone from helping them.”

UNRWA was established on 8 December, 1949, by UN General Assembly Resolution 302, with the aim of providing relief and employment for Palestinian refugees. It began operations on 1 May, 1950. The agency currently provides essential services to 5.3 million registered refugees living in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, covering humanitarian relief, education and medical and social care.

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“As long as UNRWA is there, ending the refugee issue is difficult for Israel,” noted Hossam Al-Dajni, professor of media and politics at Al-Umma University in Gaza. “Netanyahu’s demand illustrates that Israel sees the agency’s existence as ongoing confirmation of the refugees’ right of return.” UNRWA and the services it provides to the Palestinian refugees gives legitimacy to the issue in terms of international law, he added.