William Bell, Head of Christian Aid’s Middle East Policy, said:
“After withdrawing all aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the United States cannot present itself as an impartial peace broker between Israel and the Palestinians. The primary motive appears to be to challenge the number of eligible Palestinian refugees who can claim the right of return to their former homes in what is now Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. With one stroke, the status of millions of Palestinian refugees and the humanitarian lifeline they depend upon for vital health, social and education services is in serious jeopardy.
“Such a move will clearly send shockwaves through a population who have endured 70 years of vulnerability and insecurity throughout the Middle East, including Syria.
“Christian Aid has always been unequivocal in its support for Israel’s right to exist, its security and the rights of all its citizens. We believe that Palestinians deserve the same rights. This latest US move comes after its controversial embassy relocation to Jerusalem. Peace for Palestinians appears to mean accepting the will of the most powerful and giving up the most basic of human rights. Tragically, the international community continues to stand aside and watch as Palestinian claims and historical ties to the land are steadily dismantled.
“Palestinian refugees’ desire to return to their original homes is not a manufactured idea, it is a legal and moral right that has become part of Palestinian identity. This is one of the key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regardless of US desires, only the UN General Assembly can determine the legal status of refugees.
“From Gaza to Lebanon to Syria, people remember where they are from and understand that, like all UN-registered refugees, they have a right to return there. it is very hard to imagine how peace will be achieved if one side is effectively stripped of their legitimate identity.
“Since Christian Aid began working in the Middle East in the 1950s, we have witnessed the ongoing displacement of Palestinians as a reality that threatens them wherever they live. We cannot stand by and watch as Palestinian lives are consistently treated as second class.
“International law should underpin and guide any peace process, but without respect, dignity and compassion as well, the poor and dispossessed, the stateless and those without power, will only become more vulnerable and desperate. By threatening the vital humanitarian services that UNRWA provides and challenging people’s identity, the US is condemning millions to even greater insecurity. A peace process is not a blunt instrument to bend people against their will. It must be the path that leads all to security, prosperity and hope.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
- UNRWA was established after the 1948 war when approximately 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly removed from their homes. Today there are more than five million Palestinians scattered across the Middle East and beyond who consider Palestine as their historical homeland.
- Until now, the US has been the largest single donor to UNRWA, providing $368m (£284m) in 2016 and funding almost 30% of its operations in the region. The UN defines refugees as anyone who has been forced from their homes by war, persecution or violence. Descendants of refugees are included while displacement continues.
- “Before the war in Syria, Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus was home to more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees. The camp experienced some of the most savage fighting in Syria’s bitter civil war: the population dropped to less than 18,000, of whom 3,500 are children, and it continues to suffer from a lack of food and medical treatment. Visiting the camp in July 2018, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl reported that “the scale of the destruction in Yarmouk compares to very little else that I have seen in many years of humanitarian work in conflict zones”. This example is sadly not the exception. In 1982, during Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a Lebanese militia, linked to the Maronite Phalange Party, savagely demonstrated how unwelcome Palestinians are in the country. Red Cross sources estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 were massacred in Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut; some reports suggest it was nearer 3,000.