25 + 1 Since Oslo – Equality is Still the “Elephant in the Room”

Writing on the 25th anniversary of the Oslo accords this time last year, Jan Egeland, the Norwegian diplomat, former politician and current head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who helped organize back-channel talks that led to the framework agreement between Israel and the PLO two-and-a-half decades ago, observed that “[d]espite the grim trends, there is still a way out of the vicious cycle of conflict. […] It can only be a matter of time”, writes Egeland, “before Israeli leadership realizes its long-term security is dependent on equal rights and dignity for millions of disillusioned Palestinian youth”.

Referring to the situation in the Gaza Strip, Egeland’s comment raised a broader issue—equality between Jewish Israelis, Palestinians and others as the foundation for a solution to the protracted conflict—that few world leaders, whether mediators, donors or interested bystanders, appear willing to talk about publicly. This seemed starkly evident two years ago when UN Secretary-General António Guterres ordered the removal of a report on Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid from the international organization’s website. Whatever the reasons for the decision (the Secretary-General’s spokesperson said the UN report was issued without prior consultation), Guterres missed an important opportunity to address an issue that is arguably central to the conflict and its resolution.

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Sabra and Shatila – Atrocities of Partition?

For 40 continuous hours between sunset on Thursday 16 September and midday on Saturday 18 September 1982, the massacre of Sabra and Shatila took place, one of the most barbaric of the twentieth century.

So begins Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout’s account of the massacre of Palestinian refugees nearly four decades ago during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon based on the testimonies of eye-witnesses and survivors.

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Some Thoughts on Donor Funding and the Sustainability of UNRWA Services – Part I

Towards the end of its seventy-third session this past year the UN General Assembly adopted a series of resolutions on Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. Revised and tabled annually, the resolutions address the operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), assistance and protection for Palestinians displaced during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, and the right of refugees to their properties and revenues derived by the state of Israel therefrom.

Expressing concern about the lack of adequate funding for refugee assistance in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the Assembly once again

Call[ed] upon all donors to continue to strengthen their efforts to meet the anticipated needs of [UNRWA], including with regard to increased expenditures and needs arising from conflicts and instability in the region and the serious socioeconomic and humanitarian situation, particularly in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and those needs mentioned in recent emergency, recovery and reconstruction appeals and plans for the Gaza Strip and in the regional crisis response plans to address the situation of Palestine refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic and those Palestine refugees who have fled to countries in the region.

While ensuring sufficient, predictable and sustainable funding of UNRWA’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection programmes has been a persistent challenge over the Agency’s nearly seven decades of operations, as the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA noted in its most recent report, the scope and scale of the challenge assumed new proportions last summer when the Trump administration decided to terminate funding of UNRWA operations.

The decision followed an initial suspension at the beginning of 2018 of nearly 85 percent of pledged US contributions for the year which in total comprised around a third of the funds needed to run the Agency’s regular operations providing among others education, health and welfare services for Palestine refugees. The sudden termination left UNRWA with a projected deficit of USD 446 million including a USD 49 million deficit carried over from 2017. Describing 2018 as a “tumultuous year”, Pierre Krähenbühl, the Agency’s Commissioner-General, observed that “[a]t every level and on every front we have been been in crisis mode […] exacerbated by the largest funding shortfall [UNRWA] has every faced”.

This first in a series of commentaries examines the rationale behind the administration’s decision to terminate funding of UNRWA’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection operations. Part two will explore the potential impact of the decision on Palestine refugees and others eligible to receive Agency services while part three reviews UNRWA efforts to reduce its projected deficit this past year. This is a somewhat round-about way of getting to the central issue of this series of commentaries, namely, UNRWA’s sustainability in the absence of a political solution to the long-running struggle over Palestine/Israel. The fourth and final part offers a few thoughts on ways forward as UNRWA, hosts and donors, as well as refugees themselves, look towards the current fiscal year.

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UNGA Resolution 194 – Looking Back 70 Years Later

On 11 December 1948, seven decades ago this year, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 194, the United Nation’s second “peace plan” for Palestine. The resolution effectively superseded the Assembly’s first plan, namely, Resolution 181, otherwise known as the partition plan, adopted just over a year earlier. It was the recommendation to divide Palestine into politically distinct but economically linked Arab and Jewish states against the express will of the country’s indigenous majority that sparked hostilities leading to the first Arab-Israeli war.

The UN’s new peace plan, approved months before the state of Israel and neighbouring Arab states signed armistice agreements marking the official end of hostilities, not only had to address issues which had nearly led to the failure of the Assembly’s first plan even before its adoption, it also had to contend with an entirely new situation which had arisen during and as a result of the war, namely, the forcible displacement of around half of Palestine’s Arab population. In those areas held by Israeli military forces only 15 percent of the pre-war Arab population remained by the time hostilities came to an end.

While much of the substantive content of Resolution 194 seems to have been forgotten, the Assembly’s resolve that

the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible

continues to be a lightening rod of sorts for debate, not only in relation to a solution to what has become the world’s most protracted refugee situation, but also with regard to a solution to broader struggle over self-determination in Palestine/Israel.

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Global Trends in (Palestinian) Forced Displacement – 2017

This past June, in the lead up to World Refugee Day, UNHCR released its annual Global Trends on Forced Displacement summarizing available data on refugees, people in refugee-like situations, asylum-seekers, internally displaced, stateless and other persons of concern. According to the report, a total of 68.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced at the end of 2017, nearly 3 million more than the previous year, comprising the sixth consecutive annual increase in the number of persons forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict or generalized violence. With the number of internally displaced persons slightly smaller than 2016, the increase in forced displacement around the world was due largely to a growth in the number of refugees, in particular, those from Myanmar, South Sudan and Syria.

Refugees comprised over a third (25.4 million) of forcibly displaced persons, an increase of 2.7 million over the previous year. The refugee population in Global Trends includes 5.4 million Palestinians registered with UNRWA, the United Nations’ other refugee agency. In other words, just over a fifth of the world’s refugees in 2017 originated from that part of Mandate Palestine that became the state of Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Registered Palestinian refugees were the second largest refugee population, smaller in number than the 6.3 million refugees from Syria, but significantly larger than refugees from Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.3 million), Myanmar (1.2 million) and Somalia (986,400).

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