A brief but revealing press statement marked the meeting of US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield with the Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Philippe Lazzarini. Neutrality, a politicised status that underscores the agency’s approach to political events, is one of the principles that will determine the flow of US financial aid for Palestinian refugees.
According to Olivia Dalton, the spokeswoman for the US mission at the UN, the ambassador is “committed to working together with UNRWA to achieve important reforms to strengthen the agency’s effectiveness and efficiencies, as well as to promote shared UN principles of equality, neutrality, tolerance and anti-discrimination.”
By taking aid from the US, whose “iron-clad” commitment to Israel is being emphasised at every opportunity, UNRWA is extending the compromise which sustains its very existence. Not that it has any other option, given that all donors — and it depends almost entirely on voluntary donations — are primarily concerned with maintaining their profitable ties to Israel’s settler-colonial enterprise.
However, the US seems to be making it clear that it expects loyalty from UNRWA in terms of its purported neutrality. Humanitarian aid in this instance is not a neutral endeavour, but a political response to the violations of international law which have created a nation of refugees. UNRWA’s neutrality is, in reality, a myth. It would be much more honest to say that the agency has been twisted this way and that ever since it started operations in 1949 and with every mandate renewal since then, functioning as the humanitarian front of the politics that have forced Palestinians into permanent dispossession. The only way it can function is by seeking and accepting aid from countries which have an interest in seeing Israel succeed.
This dependency upon external funding has narrowed UNRWA’s scope. With each passing year, it is the funding that attracts media attention rather than the almost forgotten legitimate rights of the Palestinian refugees who are UNRWA’s raison d’être. The US should be clear that its promotion of neutral principles for UNRWA is a tacit demand for silence about the plight of the Palestinians.
Such silence fits well with the Israeli narrative and its lobbying to eliminate UNRWA altogether and remove refugee status from the Palestinians driven from and unable to return to their homeland. This will render the legitimate right of return obsolete. UNRWA’s perpetuation of the Palestinian people’s refugee status is tied directly to the politics sustaining the agency. In the absence of a discussion about the latter, criticism of UNRWA originating in Israel’s settler-colonial narrative cannot be countered by political solutions for the Palestinian refugees for whom the agency caters.
With former US President Donald Trump no longer enabling Israel’s elimination of Palestinian refugee status, and his successor Joe Biden promoting the humanitarian narrative, Israel will not find it difficult to make supposedly humanitarian arguments for dismantling UNRWA. Keeping silent about the dynamics that bolster UNRWA while keeping Palestinian refugees tied to the UN’s humanitarian project is one aspect of neutrality that the Biden administration is promoting.
One vital question needs to be asked: would UNRWA be willing to open itself up to constructive criticism that seeks a solution for the Palestinian refugees departing from the right of return? Or has the drive for funding eclipsed the significance of this interminable interim period in which neither rights nor politic choices are believed to apply to the people of occupied Palestine?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.