Palestinian factions in Lebanon made several proposals Thursday to help the United Nations Relief and Works Agency overcome its severe financial problems, highlighting the dangers the crisis posed on Palestinian refugees. Ali Barakeh, the representative of Hamas in Lebanon, presented the views of the Palestinian Forces Alliance, a conglomeration of 10 political factions, on how to face the UNRWA crisis.
He proposed a diplomatic strategy to spur friendly nations to stanch the agency’s deterioration, and a national strategy to push the principle of the right of return on UNRWA and host and donor countries. He also called on the agency to register undocumented Palestinians, expand the camps, and broaden its donor base.
Barakeh spoke during a symposium organized by the movement’s Bureau of Refugee Affairs under the title “UNRWA’s diminishment, and its effect on the reality of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon,” attended by representatives of Palestinian factions, civil society, and UNRWA.
Barakeh also called on UNRWA to expand its scope of refugee protection beyond policing activity to include protection against violations.
The event comes on the occasion of the 66th anniversary of the establishment of UNRWA. The gaping financial shortfall the body is suffering from has forced officials to delay opening schools this fall, and it threatened the entire school year before various nations intervened to keep the agency afloat.
The crisis reflected poorly on the state of refugee care, and to many Palestinians, the shortfall appeared as a threat altogether to the critical relief agency – an entire plan to cut refugees off from assistance and ultimately annul their right to return.
December also marks the 67th anniversary of the U.N. declaration 194, published in 1948, which enshrined the right of return to Palestinian refugees.
Fathi Abou al-Ardat, who spoke on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization, stressed the need to adopt an agency budget that is commensurate with refugee needs, at all levels, and not a budget constrained by donor generosity. He also called on factions and UNRWA to prioritize the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared camp, in North Lebanon, and demanded permission from the Lebanese state to allow construction materials to enter the site. The Lebanese Army besieged Nahr al-Bared in 2007 to flush out the Fatah al-Islam militants who took over the enclave and attacked the military. The camp was reduced to rubble and its 31,000 residents displaced.
Speaking on behalf of Matthias Schmale, UNRWA’s general director in Lebanon, the group’s director in Sidon Ibrahim Khatib expressed his reservations about using the phrase “diminished services.”
“UNRWA was created by a political decision of the General Assembly of the United Nations to provide relief and works projects to Palestinian refugees until such a point that a just solution to the Palestinian cause is found. Here, there is friction between what the agency sees as a just solution and the aspirations of the Palestinians. It is a legal right of the refugees to return, but we say that the just right could comprise return, or it could comprise some other matters.”
Bureau chief Yasser Ali opened the session with a lecture reviewing UNRWA’s creation, noting that the agency has offered services and care for more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in the fields of education, health, relief and so forth. Ali asked why agency’s finances remain in the hands of donor countries, instead of the central treasury of the U.N.
Khatib said that UNRWA could not have a central fund because the body would be dissolved once the Palestinian cause is resolved, but said that UNRWA was working on having part of its revenues come from a fixed source.