The United Nations General Assembly on Friday overwhelmingly renewed the mandate for a UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees for another three years amid misconduct allegations and a cash shortfall triggered by a halt in US funding, according to Reuters.
The mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was extended until June 30, 2023, with 169 votes in favor and nine abstentions, while the United States and Israel voted against.
UNRWA, which as established in 1949, provides education, health and relief services as well as housing and microfinance assistance to more than 5 million registered refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The agency has faced budgetary difficulties since last year, when the United States – its biggest donor – halted its aid of $360 million per year. The United States and Israel have both accused UNRWA of mismanagement and anti-Israeli incitement.
In a statement published by the official Palestinian news agency WAFA, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas praised the vote as a victory for international law and the rights of the Palestinian refugees.
The Islamist group Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, hailed the UN vote as a defeat for the United States and a failure of its attempts to pressure UN member-states against UNRWA.
“We welcome the decision to renew the international mandate to UNRWA and we see it as another failure to hostile US policies to the Palestinian rights,” Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.
The US mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the vote.
Last month UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl resigned amid an investigation into misconduct allegations. Krahenbuhl has denied wrongdoing and said his agency was the victim of a political campaign designed to undermine it.
Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium suspended payments to UNRWA over the inquiry, deepening the budget crisis set off last year by the United States. UNRWA hopes the management shake-up will help pacify donors, said a source with knowledge of the organization’s thinking.
The United States has advocated shifting the agency’s relief services to refugee host countries. But UNRWA counters it provides a humanitarian lifeline and that it safeguards and advances Palestinians’ rights under international law.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, praised the UN vote on Friday and said it was the United Nations’ responsibility to combat what she called US and Israeli attacks on Palestinian refugees.
“All attempts at trying to limit UNRWA’s mandate or defund it or attack it have failed, and we hope that the international community will continue to come to the rescue,” she said.
‘We are nothing’ without UNRWA’s help, a Palestinian refugee
George Salameh’s family has lived in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem for 70 years. Still, he prefers his family be called “al-Yafawi”, meaning “of Jaffa”, an ode to the Mediterranean coastal town his family left in 1948 and still considers home, reports Reuters.
Salameh, like many Palestinians whose families were made refugees following the mid-20th century war that surrounded Israel’s creation, views his presence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city as temporary.
Other Palestinian refugees are scattered from the Gaza Strip to Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. Many still hold iron keys which they say belong to homes they fled or were forced to flee amid what Palestinians call the “Nakba“, or catastrophe, in 1948.
Salameh, 59, now runs a falafel, ful and hummus restaurant, just off Bethlehem’s Manger Square. The motto “since 1948” is emblazoned on the restaurant’s menus and its waiters’ shirt sleeves.
He says his membership card from UNRWA – the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees – guarantees his right under international law to return to his family’s home in Jaffa, which now sits in central Israel, some 78 km (nearly 50 miles) away.
The UN General Assembly voted on Friday to renew UNRWA’s mandate to provide education, health and relief services to more than five million Palestinian refugees across the region.
UNRWA argues its services are needed “in absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem”.
But Israel refuses the right of return Salameh and other refugees claim, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority.
Salameh admits his hopes for going back remain dim.
“We don’t believe there will be a right of return. It’s like an anesthetic, it takes the pain away, but it is not a cure,” Salameh said.
In the Gaza Strip, Zakeya Moussa says her family once owned 16 acres (6.5 hectares) of land just north of the coastal enclave’s fortified border with Israel.
Moussa, 63, has spent her entire life living in Palestinian refugee camps in the Strip, which Israel has kept under blockade since 2007 citing security concerns from its Islamist rulers Hamas.
Near Moussa’s home in Gaza’s Beach refugee camp on the shores of the Mediterranean, Palestinians were unloading sacks of flour they receive from UNRWA, which provides aid to over half of the enclave’s two million residents.
She says her family’s land had a house surrounded by tracts of fruit and vegetable fields, all now north of the Strip’s Erez border crossing with Israel.
Under different circumstances, it would be just a short walk away, she said.
“If I started walking now, I would be there in the afternoon.”