FRESH AIR

Palestinians declare war on main benefactor UNRWA over required pledge not to discriminate

Oct 3, 2023 | Allon Lee

Palestinians receive their food rations from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) warehouse in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah (Image: Shutterstock)
Palestinians receive their food rations from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) warehouse in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah (Image: Shutterstock)

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) pro-Palestinian credentials are second to none.

Indeed, the so-called Palestinian refugee crisis might have been resolved many decades ago if UNRWA had not expended billions of dollars since 1949 on providing free housing, medical treatment, food and schooling to millions of Palestinians,most of whom do not meet the accepted definition of what constitutes a refugee, while encouraging them to never settle down and instead await “return” to former ancestral homes inside Israel.

Yet UNRWA’s stellar record of support for both Palestinian welfare and Palestinian political demands counted for little two weeks ago when the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas and many other Palestinian civic and religious organisations declared war on UNRWA.

UNRWA’s great crime was to tell its 13,000 employees in Gaza they would need to sign a new Code of Conduct which included a commitment to treat “all people equally and with respect in accordance with UN policy,” stipulating this includes “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender colleagues (UNRWA staff) and beneficiaries (service recipients – the refugee population).”

While sensitivity to local religious, social and cultural mores is essential, the directive was clearly not calling for Palestinians to legalise or approve of homosexuality, only for those working for UNRWA to promise not to discriminate when carrying out their jobs.

Yet, Palestinians did not see it that way.

As the Democratic Assembly of UNRWA Workers put it, UNRWA’s directive was “a dagger in the side of the Palestinian refugee.”

The Association of Palestine Scholars accused UNRWA of “glorifying obscenity and vice, and targeting the moral and humanitarian values of Palestinian society.”

The Joint Committee of UNRWA Employee Associations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip accused it of pursuing a campaign to spread “the culture of perversion” in Palestinian society under the guise of promoting “equality”.

Jenin-based Islamic scholar Abd Al-Rahman Al-Zayoud denounced the directive as a threat to “the Islamic culture, which sees homosexuality and lesbianism as punishable by death… They want us to respect this and strip us of our religion.”

None of this is a surprise. Surveys show 93% of Palestinians think homosexuality is unacceptable, one of the highest figures in the world. In Gaza, the ‘crime’ of being openly gay is punishable by death, while the more ‘liberal’ PA criminal code imposes a maximum ten-year jail sentence.

Beyond exposing an intolerance for the LGBTQI+ community, the responses also opened a window into how Palestinians view the UN and its human rights agenda.

Technically, Hamas and the PA were not attacking UNRWA as an institution – nor do they want to see UNRWA stop serving as a conduit for aid money to provide services to Palestinians, while employing thousands of them in some of the best-paying jobs in Gaza and the West Bank. That would be absurd.

In reality, the UN in the Agency’s title is practically an honorific. The UN raises the funds for the Agency but, for all intents and purposes, UNRWA is a Palestinian-run institution in all but name.

The anger was thus effectively directed at the coterie of foreigners appointed by the UN bureaucracy to fill the Agency’s most senior management positions.

In short, Palestinian leaders want the UN’s money, but not its values.

The PA’s statement, published in its official daily newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida on Sept. 16, expressed a series of extreme positions and uncompromising demands.

This included an insistence that the UN acknowledge Palestinians have a right to discriminate against LGBTQI+ people,and called on UNRWA to remove all references to “sexual orientations and gender identity that appear in the code of conduct.”

The statement also showed the PA’s highly selective support for the UN’s human rights mission, explaining that it only “respects… human rights that do not contradict the principles of the Islamic religion and its rituals and the moral principles of the Palestinian society.”

Moreover, the PA appeared to completely deny that LGBTQI+ people could even exist in Palestinian society, saying such a proposition was a “slander and a false libel against the employees and refugees alike.”

The PA also criticised “donor states” who want to “impos[e] conditions on UNRWA,” – not only regarding LGBTQI+ rights but also in terms of calling for the removal of crude antisemitic content in PA textbooks being used in UNRWA schools.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesperson Salama Maarouf expressed similar sentiments, accusing UNRWA of overstepping its mandate, insisting its objective “is to serve refugees.”

There was also an implied threat in Marrouf’s assertion that “it is dangerous for an international organisation like [UNRWA] to mobilise its capabilities and programs to serve a distant goal.” The Democratic Assembly of UNRWA Workers statement also appeared to contain an implied threat, saying:

It was better for [UNRWA] to maintain a good relationship with the Palestinian refugees.

A lot of the rhetoric went deep into conspiracy theory territory. The statement issued by the Joint Committee of UNRWA Employee Associations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, blamed the new Code of Conduct on “malicious Zionist-American behaviours.”

Speaking on Lebanese TV, UNRWA Workers Union spokesperson Muhammad Shwadeh accused the agency of “collaboration with some enemies of the Palestinian people.”

At the time of writing, the standoff remained unresolved. Based on history, where UNRWA has repeatedly caved in when confronted with angry denunciations by Palestinian groups, the most probable outcome is that the Agency will blink first.

For instance, despite the concerted efforts of donor states, it has been practically impossible to dislodge the PA-sourced textbooks with shocking antisemitism and anti-Israeli incitement from UNRWA schools.

That UNRWA allows itself to be intimidated by the PA and Hamas is an open secret.

In 2021, UNRWA’s Gaza Head of Operation Matthias Schmale was forced to flee the territory after he offended Hamas and other Palestinian factions after he admitted that, as far as he could see, Israel’s attacks in Gaza were “precise” and “did not hit, with some exceptions, civilian targets.” UNRWA not only removed him from his post, but said his remarks “cannot be defended.”

In 2018, after UNRWA announced budgetary pressures would require staff layoffs and program cuts, at least ten senior officials received credible death threats.

Instead of UNRWA protesting this outrage to Hamas, the targeted individuals also had to flee Gaza.

And woe betide any UN official who deviates from the official Palestinian party line, as Andrew Whitley learnt in 2010. UNRWA’s outgoing New York-based director was compelled to make a grovelling apology after telling an Arab American group that Palestinian refugees must not be allowed to preserve the “cruel illusion” that they will return one day to their homes in Israel.

Whitley was, however, in good company. Way back in 1952, Lt. Gen. Sir Alexander Galloway, who headed up UNWRA’s Jordan operations, lost his job after publicly grumbling that the Arab side was stymieing UNRWA’s efforts to resettle Palestinian Arabs.

Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, progressive NGOs and so-called human rights groups appear to be missing in action on what should be a straightforward issue. Their ongoing silence is a betrayal of LGBTQI+ Palestinians, who almost always have to hide their sexual identities.

A retraction by UNRWA of its directive would be a clear betrayal of probably the most vulnerable section of Palestinian society deserving of the UN’s support and protection.

It would also serve as yet one more reminder of the organisation’s chequered commitment to its own stated “principles [that] humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence are at the heart of all UNRWA operations.”

Australia is of course a major donor to UNRWA. In theory, Canberra is committed to holding UNRWA “accountable by speaking directly with the Commissioner-General, engaging in the organisation’s Advisory Commission and through DFAT’s monitoring and evaluation requirements” and ensuring  UNRWA’s “adherence to principles of tolerance, non-discrimination, equality and neutrality.”

Such accountability should be central to Australia’s relationship with UNRWA because it is very clear that UNRWA, as currently constituted, is a major barrier to the negotiated two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace which is the central goal of Australia’s bipartisan policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

This latest incident should be a timely reminder that merely saying one supports UNRWA being held accountable, while continuing to provide aid without pre-conditions, is very unlikely to accomplish any positive change, and is thus likely to make peace more distant.

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