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Palestinians push for aid strings to go

By JAN YUMUL in Hong Kong | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-10-21 09:23

A Palestinian approaches an Israeli army checkpoint outside the city of Hebron on Oct 13. The woman wants to work on olive fields on the other side of Israel's separation barrier. [HAZEM BADER/AFP]

Refugees' supporters say terms tied to US funds deprive them of basic rights

Palestinian refugees and their advocates are stepping up calls for the scrapping of conditions attached to a funding deal between the United States and a United Nations agency that they say strip away basic rights.

The Palestinians, who have endured food shortages and reduced aid flows during the pandemic, have been outraged by the deal, called the Framework for Cooperation, which the US signed in July with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA.

Palestinians in Gaza have been holding demonstrations against the agreement, claiming that the deal violates many of their rights.

Philippe Lazzarini, chief of the UNRWA, said the agency is facing an "existential budget crisis" to keep 550,000 children in school and cover healthcare and wages for its thousands of workers. The funding is essential, he said.

Haydar Oruc, a researcher on Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian affairs based in Turkey, said the agreement between the US and the UN agency should be canceled immediately. It stipulates what he and others call unfair conditions for the continuation of financial aid.

Oruc said the agency should return to carrying out its main duties without any conditions.

He said the most contentious of these conditions is the requirement for schools run by the UNRWA in Gaza to be monitored for "suspicious situations".

In addition, Oruc said, the social media accounts of the agency's staff will be monitored, and criticism of Israel or the organization's donors will not be allowed. These conditions, he said, are "illegal as they are immoral" and contrary to the agency's founding charter.

"After underlining how important the UNRWA is for the future of the Palestinian people, it is necessary to explain how the deal with the United States might affect the future work of the institution," Oruc said.

He said the "UNRWA is the most important institution" that supports Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. The aid from the US must continue, but the US must also be responsible, he said.

With the Palestinians suffering from human rights violations under the Israeli occupation of their territories, the US should "continue to support the UNRWA", said Oruc.

Arhama Siddiqa, a Middle East expert and research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad in Pakistan, said the UNRWAUS deal could put aid to Palestinians on a less secure footing, with the risk that the US could withdraw its support at any time.

The US restored funding support for the UN agency in April after then-president Donald Trump halted transfers in 2018.

Restored deal

The restored deal sees $150 million go to the UN agency to provide lifesaving services to registered Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, with an additional $135.8 million to the agency. The US gave almost $33 million in humanitarian assistance in May in response to needs arising from violence in the West Bank and Gaza.

The framework agreement states that no part of the US contribution shall be used to "furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla-type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism".

This effectively excludes many Palestinians because, especially since the violence in May, and in view of any future violence, "a lot of Palestinians are engaged in training, which can also be called self-defense," Siddiqa said.

Other conditions under the framework include neutrality requirements for UNRWA personnel with their use of social media, and a semiannual report must be submitted to the US.

Kamaruzaman Bin Yusoff, a Middle East political analyst and former professor at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in Johor, questioned the need for the agency to report to the US, given that it carries out aid work and has never been involved in local politics.

Yusoff said the Palestinians are now "at a crossroads". Still, the academic said there is hope that nations, especially Arab ones, can exert pressure, as they are "supposed to raise this particular question to the UN".

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