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‘You cannot airbrush Palestinians out of history,’ UNRWA spokesperson warns US

UN agency's Chris Gunness deplores Washington's funding cuts, calling them a political attack on the status of refugees
An UNRWA teacher works with her students at the UNRWA Amir Hassan Preparatory 1 School in Jordan. (UNRWA / Viola Bruttomesso)

LIVERPOOL, UK - The US cannot “airbrush” Palestinians out of history by removing funding for refugees and denying their UN-mandated status, the spokesperson for the United Nation agency for Palestinian refugees has warned ahead of a new push for funds in New York this week to replace $305m axed by the Trump administration.

The US cut all funds to UNRWA’s programmes at the end of August in a move that jeopardises services to millions of refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

You cannot airbrush out of history 5.4 million people who belong to a UN-protected community, you cannot wish away their rights, their right to education, their rights to health and their rights to self determination

- Chris Gunness, UNRWA chief spokesperson

Chris Gunness, who spoke at a meeting of Labour Friends of Palestine and Middle East group at the party's conference on Monday, said that the funding cuts were a “political attack” on the Palestinian people and the agency, but that only the UN could change the status of refugees and UNWRA’s mandate.

“You cannot airbrush out of history 5.4 million people who belong to a UN-protected community, you cannot wish away their rights, their right to education, their rights to health and their rights to self determination," Gunness said.

Gunness said UNRWA had opened schools for 270,000 refugee children at the end of August, but only had money to keep them open until the end of September.

UNRWA is holding its third fundraising conference this year in New York on Thursday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (GA) meeting, as it attempts to plug the gap caused by the US withdrawal of support. 

Gunness said the loss of funds had come as a surprise after an assurance from the US State Department at the end of 2017 that its funding was assured for 2018. Weeks later, only $60m out of a promised $125m arrived.

“It became apparent to us that this was not a funding attack, this was a political attack on a people whose society had been dismantled, their communities had been dismantled, in a very specific historical episode, the 1948 war."

UNRWA runs 270 schools in Gaza for 270,000 students, and provides schooling to a total of half a million children in the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

It has recently had to suspend 500 counsellors who treat traumatised children in Gaza because of US funding cuts.

Broken promises

Gunness said despite the US and Israeli move to shut down UNRWA, it was a UN mandated agency and could not be dismantled at the whim of the US president, nor could the status of refugees be swept away.

“No single UN member state can unilaterally change our mandate. We are mandated by the General Assembly, and in 2016, 167 members of the General Assembly voted to endorse wholeheartedly our mandate.

"The same is true of refugee definitions, it is the General Assembly that defines that and approves that, and no single member-state can unilaterally change the definition.”

“We were first told by the Americans that our reform programme was not up to scratch, having told us several weeks earlier that we were getting top marks for a lot of these reforms," he added.

"Then through the UN ambassador [Nikki Hayley] we were told that UNRWA wasn’t getting any money because Palestinians weren’t coming to the negotiating table, which again was very odd for us because as a humanitarian organisation we never were invited to the negotiating table, so it was odd to be punishing us for something we weren’t actually responsible for.

It became apparent to us that this was not a funding attack, this was a political attack on a people whose society had been dismantled

- Chris Gunness, UNRWA

“And then finally we learnt through the media that there appeared to be many other reasons: the General Assembly’s definition of refugees was deemed to be problematic, refugee descendants were deemed not to be refugees, the right of return was something we were meant to deny to Palestinian refugees."

He also said attempts to shift responsibility for Palestinian refugees to the UNHCR, the agency responsible for most of the world's refugees, would “dramatically” increase the number of registered Palestinians and the pressure to resettle them.

“The UNHCR registers refugees through both the male and female line, UNRWA registers refugees just with the male line. So if in some fictional world we were to be shut down and the GA handed Palestinian refugees over to the UNHCR, the number of refugees would increase dramatically.”

Severe implications

Since the US cuts, Saudi Arabia and Qatar donated $50m each, and the UK increased its contribution by $10m. Following two international fundraising drives other UN member-states have helped reduce the $305m deficit at the beginning of the year to $186m, he said.

UNWRA services include 143 primary health clinics, with health visits and consultations for 3.5 million patients, assistance to 14,000 disabled refugees, and summer camps for 200,000 children, most of whom are girls.

“A huge amount is at stake if we can’t raise this money. This is not rhetoric, these are real services to real human beings. Without UNRWA, this has severe implications for the next generation."

Last year, he said, UNRWA managed to enrol 43,000 Palestinian children in Syria into its schools, despite seven years of civil war in the country.

Gunness said the underlying cause of the Israel-Palestine conflict had to be resolved to end the crisis.

“UNRWA’s financial crisis would go away if the underlying causes of this conflict were to be dealt with. First of all, more than a decade of blockade in Gaza, more than half a century of occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, seven years of war in Syria, [and] most important - 70 years of dispossession.”