The Nakba is both a historical crime as well as an ongoing trauma.
The Palestinian refugees who were forcefully expelled from their homes and villages in 1948 now live in densely-populated camps with schools, shops, and homes that defy the common definition of “camp” as an impermanent structure.
Going on 65 years, the original refugees are raising their grandchildren in these camps today.
If you stand on any street corner in downtown Gaza, you will likely see an SUV with a blue and white flag waving as it passes by. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) likes to make its presence known.
Established soon after the forced expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948-49, UNRWA was intended to be a temporary relief agency to coordinate the efforts of NGOs and other UN agencies to the Palestinian refugees. Today it provides desperately needed jobs, food and education to the descendants of the Nakba.
If UNRWA was set up as a temporary Agency, why is it still working after 60 years?
The UN General Assembly has affirmed “the necessity for the continuation of the work” of UNRWA and “the importance of its unimpeded operation and its provision of services for the well-being and human development of the Palestine refugees and for the stability of the region.” The General Assembly has renewed UNRWA’s mandate repeatedly pending the just resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees.
What is UNRWA’s mandate?
UNRWA was originally mandated to:
- “carry out direct relief and works programmes in collaboration with local governments”
- “consult with the Near Eastern governments concerning measures to be taken preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects is no longer available”, and
- plan for the time when relief was no longer needed.
UNRWA’s contemporary mandate is to provide relief, human development and protection services to Palestine refugees and persons displaced by the 1967 hostilities in its fields of operation: Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, West Bank and the Gaza Strip. UNRWA’s mandate has been repeatedly renewed by the UN General Assembly. The current mandate runs until 30 June 2014.
The International Refugee Organization (IRO) was helping Jewish refugees in Europe following WWII, so the logical question is “why didn’t the IRO encompass the Palestinian refugees under its mandate?” Ilan Pappe notes that the Zionist organizations responsible for the Nakba didn’t want any possible association or comparison between the refugees from the Holocaust and the Nakba and so a separate organization was created in 1950 for the Palestinians.
Israel seems to have a love-hate relationship with UNRWA. On the one hand, if UNRWA didn’t exist, the financial and logistical burden of caring for the Palestinian refugees would fall on Israel. However, Israeli officials and media are not shy about sharing their disdain for the organization. And the Israeli military has targeted UNRWA schools, killing children and families taking refuge there during hostilities.
Today, UNRWA is helping Palestinian refugees caught in the middle of the fighting in Syria. Some are fleeing to Gaza. Palestinian President Abbas asked the U.N. to seek Israeli permission to resettle some of the Palestinian refugees from Syria in the West Bank and Gaza. Apparently, Israel agreed only if the refugees would give up their right to return to what is now Israel, a tacit acknowledgement that Palestinian refugees indeed have a right to return to their homes.