Covid-19 is seen to have exacerbated the refugees’ plight, but having this immediate and more pressing concern is, for diplomatic reasons, a premise to marginalise the work that should have been done earlier to at least ensure a decent living for dispossessed Palestinians. International humanitarian aid doesn’t work that way; it responds to crises rather than lengthy, “temporary” situations that have been rendered permanent by the politicians tasked with finding solutions.
Last week, UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini appealed for international donors to stave off the immediate effects of the pandemic. He pointed out that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are faced with dire choices simply to survive, based partly on Lebanon’s financial crisis and the inadequate facilities in the camps, some of which were destroyed by the Lebanese army in 2007 and are still awaiting reconstruction.
“What do you answer someone who says that they have three options: die from Covid-19, die from hunger or take to the sea, hoping to start a new life on the other side of the Mediterranean?” Lazzarini asked. “A little can go a long way in the case of Palestine refugees in Lebanon, and I am calling on the international community to help ensure they can live in dignity and maintain stability in the camps.”
Yesterday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the resumption of financial aid to UNRWA, starting with $150 million for the agency. This is less than half the annual donation stopped by Donald Trump in 2018.
“The United States is deeply committed to ensuring that our partnership with UNRWA promotes neutrality, accountability and transparency,” said Blinken. “The United States is committed to advancing prosperity, security and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians in tangible ways in the immediate term, which is important in its own right, but also as a means to advance towards a negotiated two-state solution.”
While the resumption of aid is welcomed, UNRWA must recognise it is playing a game of political “neutrality” that is costing Palestinians the permanent loss of their land.
The agency is increasingly becoming the international community’s solution for the collective abdication of enabling Palestinians to fulfil their legitimate right to return to their land.
The scrutiny of recent years which placed UNRWA under the spotlight due to mismanagement at a senior level, was exploited by the US and Israel, which wants the agency closed down, and thus the refugee issue eradicated at a stroke. This has minimalised the discussion about the agency into a simplistic pro- or anti- stance. The Palestinians, as always, are simply collateral damage.
UNRWA needs to be in place because the international community has distanced itself from the rights of Palestinian refugees. Yet the organisation’s political role must be brought to light. There is no neutrality in being an accomplice, even if unwillingly, to preventing Palestinians from reclaiming their stolen land and properties.
If international aid is tied to the two-state compromise, which is now subject to the more profitable Abraham Accords that were also endorsed by the UN, how can UNRWA still claim neutrality? Given that its donors favour normalisation of relations with Israel over legitimate Palestinian rights enshrined in international law, it seems that refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere will continue to face dangerous, possibly life-threatening, options as a consequence of humanitarian aid being politicised.