“UNRWA: The Political and Humanitarian Importance of Refugees’ Cause”: Seminar Held by Association 302

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On September 30, 2020, the Association 302 to Defend Refugee Rights held a seminar titled: “UNRWA: The Political and Humanitarian Importance of Refugees’ Cause, as well as Their Right to Return", as a part of its seminar series via Zoom. The seminar was moderated by Wijdan al-Rabi’y, who managed the discussion between several personalities specialized in legal matters and the UNRWA’s field of action.

Being the first to start the discussion, the Director General of Association 302, Ali Hweidi, stressed that:

“The current UNRWA system, including its limited mandate, tasks and funding method, is no longer fit to deal with the plight of the Palestinian refugees, which has been only worsening for more than 70 years. The system needs a resolution from the General Assembly to expand the agency's work policy.”

Hweidi called for exerting efforts to pressure the General Assembly to reach several resolutions, most notably “an affirmation that UNRWA is an international agency with a permanent and not temporary mandate, the expansion of the personal and geographical mandate of UNRWA to include all Palestinian refugees and displaced persons in their different places of residence, not only those in the five UNRWA operations areas, and making the UNRWA budget a core part of the mandatory contribution of countries to the United Nations Fund, in addition to stressing the illegality of transferring UNRWA responsibility to host countries or civil institutions and entities.”

Furthermore, Hweidi also demanded an official response from UNRWA to the study conducted by one of the Israeli security centres, during which alternatives to UNRWA were presented, most notably delegating refugees-related responsibilities to host countries.

On her part, Tamara Al-Rifai, representative of UNRWA Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, addressed UNRWA, the challenges of the deal of the century phase, the annexation plan, and the agency's work in occupied East Jerusalem.

"It is difficult for UNRWA to meet basic services without an increase in resources,” she said.

She indicated that UNRWA is facing political and financial pressures, adding that UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini is making great efforts to emphasize the centrality of the agency’s role and increasing the number ​​donors in order to keep the agency’s work ongoing.

Al-Rifai added that the international community continues to offer the agency political support, and this is considered an official recognition of the role and importance of UNRWA, and the inability to dispense with it. However, this political support was not accompanied by financial support as required.

On his turn, Prof. Hanna Issa, professor of international law at Al-Quds University, and the Secretary-General of the Islamic Christian Committee for Supporting Jerusalem and Holy Places, commented on the political content of the General Assembly’s Resolution no. (302), which provided for establishing UNRWA.

Hanna stressed that UNRWA needs to be reformed, pointing out that Palestinian refugees still hold on to the right of return and repatriation.

He indicated that UNRWA did not have all refugees registered, saying that the number of refugees announced by the agency is 6 million, while the figure is actually far more than that.

He also pointed to the connection between the deal of the century and what the refugees cause has been going through recently.

With regard to the United Nations and the policy of double standards towards UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees issue, the Head of the Legal Unit at the Jerusalem Forum for Political and Legal Relations, Dr. Said al-Dahshan, explained the difference between international legitimacy and international law, stressing the importance of distinguishing between the two concepts in dealing with the UNRWA issue.

On whether or not the United Nations’ policy towards UNRWA is one of double standards, al-Dahshan emphasized that there is a clear overlap between international politics, international law and international legitimacy.

He pointed to the deal of the century, which seeks to liquidate UNRWA and cancel its work, by developing alternative options, most notably the resettlement of refugees.

He also referred to the UNRWA’s budget deficit and its causes, the most prominent of which is that it does not have direct funding from the United Nations.

Al-Dahshan called on the United Nations to find a definitive solution to the UNRWA funding issue.

For his part, the founder and head of the Palestine Land Authority, Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, spoke about "UNRWA and refugee records under the return plan."

Abu Sitta explained Resolution no. (194), which stipulated the recognition of the Palestinian refugees ’right to return, and stated that it includes three main items: “return home, providing the refugees with relief assistance until they return home, and the establishment of a mechanism for the return of refugees, ”noting that the Israeli occupation rejected the first item and delayed putting the third into effect.

"Israel and the United States presented many projects to destroy the refugee issue, all of which were in violation of international law and ended in failure. Therefore, they are pursuing a new plan now, which is to destroy the only remaining item of Resolution no. (194), which is related to UNRWA,” he said.

Abu Sitta talked about the number of Palestinian refugees, registered and unregistered with UNRWA, and explained that they have an extensive database on Palestinians, their villages and their properties, which is used to develop a return plan. He also stressed that “the presence of UNRWA and our demand to improve its services should not distract us from the basic demand, which is our right as refugees. We are entitled to return, we are not beggars.”

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