On June 11, 2017, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the dismantling of the UN agency that aids millions of Palestinian refugees, accusing it of stoking anti-Israeli sentiments and perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem.
Netanyahu, after a meeting with the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, in Jerusalem, said, “It is time the UNRWA be dismantled and merged with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established by the UN General Assembly in 1949 after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in the war that followed Israel’s creation.
Since its establishment, the UNRWA has provided education, healthcare, and social services to those meeting its definition of “Palestine refugees”.
The organisation defines a Palestine refugee as someone whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who lost his/her home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. UNRWA also provides basic services to Palestinians who became displaced as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli Conflict.
Returning to the homeland
Netanyahu wants to dismantle the UNRWA because the agency allows Palestinian refugee men to transmit their refugee status from one generation to another. This transmission of refugee status keeps the right of return for Palestinian refugees alive – it ensures that their hopes for returning to their ancestral homeland do not perish with the death of the original 1948 refugees.
Israel has accused the UNRWA of “perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem” by allowing Palestinian refugees to transmit their refugee status to future generations. This accusation aims to shift our attention away from the fact that Israel is solely responsible for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem by denying the refugees the right to return to their homes.
If Israel had accepted the right of return that was accorded to Palestinian refugees in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948, the Palestinian refugee problem would not exist today and their descendants, who have inherited their parents’ refugee status, would instead have inherited the citizenship accorded to their parents in historic Palestine.
As a consequence of Israel’s unwillingness to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, the UN General Assembly had to repeatedly extend UNRWA’s mandate because its mandate can only end when a just and lasting solution is found for the Palestinian refugee problem. While the UNRWA does not prescribe a particular solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees, UNRWA’s spokesman Chris Gunness, in 2011, implied that he was against resettlement when he wrote in an op-ed that the problem cannot “be made to go away by dispersing [Palestinian refugees] around the globe.”
UNHCR does not insist on repatriation
Unlike the UNRWA, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a specific mandate to aid refugees by eliminating their refugee status through the medium of local integration in the host country, resettlement in a third country or repatriation when possible. Netanyahu wants 1948 Palestine refugees to fall under the scope of the UNHCR because it does not insist on repatriation.
The UNRWA should continue to exist until a just and fair solution for the Palestinian refugee problem materialises.
If the UNRWA is dismantled and merged with the UNHCR, Palestinian refugees scattered all over the Middle East will effectively lose all hope of returning to their homeland. Since the possibility of repatriation is effectively being blocked by Israel, the UNHCR will either integrate them in host countries or resettle them in a third country.
Furthermore, if the UNRWA is dismantled, Palestinian refugees registered with the agency will no longer be excluded from the scope of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, which calls upon contracting states to facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees.
This exclusion clause was added to the convention by Arab states who wanted to make sure that the principle of naturalisation within the 1951 Convention did not affect the right of return for Palestinian refugees. But if the UNRWA is dismantled, Palestinian refugees will automatically lose their exclusive status.
Arab countries hosting UNRWA camps are not parties to the 1951 Convention, but they still can be affected by this text. Without the UNRWA, Palestinian refugees will fall under the UNHCR mandate which bases its work on the 1951 Convention. This means that Arab countries hosting Palestinian refugees will find themselves under pressure to either integrate Palestinian refugees or agree to their resettlement in a third country. And Palestinian refugees who could not be integrated or resettled will find themselves facing a legal limbo.
Waiting for a just and fair solution
If the UNRWA merges with the UNHCR, Palestinian refugees and their descendants will either be integrated or resettled and as a result will no longer be recognised as refugees and lose all hope for repatriation. This is what Netanyahu wants – ending the Palestinian refugee problem by dissolving their refugee status and alongside their right to return to their homeland.
The UNRWA receives its mandate from the UN General Assembly and the assembly members have long been supporting of the agency. But UNRWA’s current mandate ends on June 30, 2017, and Netanyahu will try his best to influence the next UN General Assembly vote on the future of the agency.
The UNRWA should continue to exist until a just and fair solution for the Palestinian refugee problem materialises. When members of the UN General Assembly are voting on UNRWA’s mandate, we hope that they will remember the words of the UN Security Council Mediator, Folke Bernadotte, who in 1948 noted that “No settlement can be just and complete … if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes.”
Bernadotte was assassinated by a Zionist group in 1948 for defending the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The innocent victims he died defending continue to suffer a grave injustice by not being able to return to their homes. In the middle of this injustice, the UNRWA is the only UN agency that can continue to protect and serve Palestinian refugees without stripping them of their right of return. Therefore, saving the UNRWA means saving Palestinian refugees.
Hanin Abou Salem is a political analyst and researcher. She holds an MA (Hons) in International Relations, a BA (Hons) in Social Sciences and a second BA (Hons) in International Relations. She is currently completing a PhD in International Law focusing on the right of return for Palestinian refugees under International Law.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.