The international humanitarian paradigm keeps failing Palestinians

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has been operating since 1 May 1950 under repeatedly renewed mandates in the absence of a political solution. In recent years, UNRWA has reiterated that lack of funding is rendering it incapable of meeting the demands of Palestinian refugees in basic needs such as healthcare and education. UNRWA’s dependence on donor funding, and given that the biggest donors to UNRWA are also Israel’s closest allies, makes humanitarian aid compromised. Given that the international community invented the humanitarian paradigm to prevent Palestinian refugees from claiming their political rights, the current crisis should illuminate the disaster created by the UN’s tenacity in protecting Israel’s colonial presence and expansion in Palestine.

UNRWA employees went on strike in Gaza after the agency decided to downsize its staff, appointing only 200 teachers out of 1,500 needed in the agency’s schools. Services have also been suspended in the occupied West Bank due to strikes in health centres. Demands for better working conditions and additional recruitment have not been met. The Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Labour is holding UNRWA responsible for the strike, which has rendered an already vulnerable refugee population even more susceptible to hardship.

The immediate scenario, however, is not the only issue that the PA should be looking at. Alleviating temporary hardships for Palestinians has been the decades-long humanitarian paradigm that has brought nothing but additional misery for the refugees. The PA should also be looking at the two-state compromise, and how its own support for the international imposition has contributed to Palestinians being tethered to humanitarian aid, and at the mercy of donors aligned politically with Israel.

Can the PA make the connection between the two-state compromise and the extension of UNRWA’s mandate “in the absence of a political solution”? Not only is the concept unfeasible due to Israel’s ongoing expansion, but the exclusion of Palestinian refugees from the political process also ensures the extension of humanitarian aid as determined by the international community. Israel created Palestinian refugees through its ethnic cleansing, and the international community created the “Palestinian refugee problem” with its insistence on humanitarian provision without a political solution. UNRWA’s mandate, even its purported neutral stance which works in Israel’s favour, reflects the international community’s adherence to the earlier references conceptualising the two-state framework, adopted in the 1947 Partition Plan. There was never an intent for Palestinians to be part of a political process; the outcome for Palestinians was envisaged as being subservient to colonialism and an appendage for the international rhetoric on human rights.

UNRWA has issued official statements on how the ongoing strikes by its workers are affecting Palestinian refugees. Blaming UNRWA, in the case of the PA, or blaming the workers, as the agency is doing, only reflects a reluctance to delve into the core issue, which is the international community’s zealous support for Israeli colonialism in Palestine.

“It is even more shocking and unprecedented that staff working for a UN Agency delivering humanitarian services are the ones actively denying basic rights to a community that has been deprived of fundamental rights for decades,” said UNRWA. However, is it not even more shocking that Israel, which has called for redefining who is a Palestinian refugee, is not mentioned as the reason why UNRWA and Palestinian refugees exist in the first place and are embroiled in the cruel debacle of the humanitarian aid paradigm?

The international humanitarian paradigm keeps failing Palestinians

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