On Wednesday, 21 October 2020, the Association 302 to Defend Refugees Rights held a seminar entitled “The Future of UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugee Issue in Light of the Palestinian National Project: Facts and Challenges,” via Zoom.
Moderated by the human rights activist and journalist Fatima Zeineddine, the seminar’s main topics were debated by a group of academic elites, national figures, researchers in the field of "UNRWA" and refugees.
Director General of Association 302, Ali Hweidi, delivered the seminar’s opening speech. He said:
“The United States is attempting to thwart the work of UNRWA through various means, most notably pressuring donor countries to reduce support dedicated to the general budget, imposing conditions on the disbursement of contributions made, and coercing UNRWA to reduce services, in terms of quantity and quality, and proposing the transfer of UNRWA responsibilities to the host countries, in addition to holding Arab countries, especially the Gulf states, responsible for funding, and encouraging international institutions and local committees to carry out UNRWA’s tasks, as well as promoting the idea that UNRWA is an opponent of refugees and is not fully competent.”
He stressed that:
“The Palestinian political action must be strategic within a cumulative plan to protect the rights of refugees by achieving three integrated goals, namely protecting UNRWA, addressing the organization’s chronic financial crisis and expanding its powers.”
"The popular protest must be organized and continuous, and be directed to pressure the international community and be supported by an international advocacy campaign.”
For his part, Acting Chairman of the General Assembly of the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad, Majid Al-Zeer, addressed national action strategies to protect UNRWA and the refugee issue.
"It must be agreed at the official, institutional and popular levels that UNRWA must endure and be protected and that it is part of the national project until the return.”
There are three main levels on how to strategically protect UNRWA: The national level, the Arab regional level, and the international level, Al-Zeer added.
Furthermore, he accentuated that the collapse of UNRWA means the collapse of the Palestinian community at home, because the biggest number of beneficiaries of UNRWA services are the Palestinian people of the interior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
He indicated that communicating with countries might be so influential that by diplomacy it could give protection to UNRWA mainly.
With regard to the importance of preserving the camp and UNRWA within the national project, and the return of refugees, Jaber Suleiman, researcher specialized in refugee studies, tackled a wide range of themes, including: The association between the camps and refugee conditions, the UNRWA and Palestinians' vision of the camp, in addition to the multiple approaches to the camps, the camp's shaken status due to immigration, and the targeting of UNRWA.
Commenting on the targeting of the right of return, Suleiman said:
"Given the American-Israeli attack, it can be asserted that neither the dismantling of UNRWA nor the possibility of transferring its powers to the UNHCR will change the legal status of Palestinian refugees who enjoy a privileged status in the international refugee system, that’s beyond the 1951 Treaty on Refugees."
Suleiman pointed out that UNRWA's neutral and technical definition of the camp does not reflect the camp's social, economic and political characteristics and its human and identity dimensions. It does not primarily reflect the symbolism of the camp and its position in preserving the right of return, nor its role in the contemporary Palestinian struggle.
“Actually, the camp is a manifestation of the symbolic opposition between the idea of return and the reality of refugeehood in the Palestinian political discourse. The camp for the past seven decades, which followed Nakba, was the driving force of the Palestinian struggle, starting from the secret and silent struggle in the camps of the 1950s, through the clamor of guns in the mid-1960s, to their silence and their sad demise in the corridors of negotiations.”
Samira Salah, a member of the Palestinian National Council, also participated in the seminar, stressing the importance of integrating political and popular action in the face of the large-scale attack on refugees and UNRWA.
She highlighted the importance of establishing unity among the refugees in all five areas of UNRWA's work, in order to avoid a divergence of opinions about the role of the organization.
Moreover, she stressed "the importance of unifying the referential authority as to follow up the role of refugees, considering that their multiplicity reflects negatively on the public leadership."
Professor of Political Science and Media at the University of the Ummah - Palestine, Dr. Adnan Abu Amer, addressed the issue of Israeli political behavior towards getting rid of UNRWA and the mechanisms to confront it.
Abu Amer mentioned a number of behaviours and political measures adopted by the Israeli occupation to turn the page on UNRWA, considering it an obstacle to the settlement plans.
He indicated that:
"One key behaviour is considering UNRWA an obstacle to a political settlement with the Palestinians, because according to him the Israeli occupation was able to persuade the Palestinian political leadership to skip the issue of return and refugees, but UNRWA stands as a stumbling block in this regard."
Of the other behaviours he mentioned was that the occupation considered UNRWA as a platform that produces terrorism and Palestinian national concepts under the so-called curriculum war.
Abu Amer added that the Israeli occupation accuses UNRWA of allowing the recruitment of educational personnel who adopt political concepts that are not in line with peaceful work.
He stated that the Israelis tried to incite the donor countries not to provide funds directly to UNRWA and to replace it with other official channels.
In addition to these behaviours, Abu Amer referred to a multitude of other measures and policies pursued by the occupation in an attempt to turn the page on UNRWA and cancel its work.