It is inhumane to live a permanent state of emergency through all the years of your life, but this has been the case for Palestine refugees following the Nakba, the Catastrophe of 1948, when the Zionist gangs forcibly uprooted them from their homeland and scattered them all over the world. With every renewed catastrophe, the state of emergency continues for Palestine refugees, their children, and grandchildren, either due to Israel’s ongoing crimes inside occupied Palestine or due to security, political, and economic conditions and disturbances in host countries and beyond.
After a long history filled with dangers and difficulties since 1948, Palestine refugees are now facing the threat of COVID-19 alongside two main challenges. The first is caused by Israel’s prolonged occupation and its direct violations of refugee rights. And the second is due to the targeting of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) by Israel and the Trump administration in an attempt to eliminate the Agency and drain its financial resources in preparation for liquidating the refugee issue. For the past 72 years, Israel has been refusing to implement United Nations Resolution 194 and preventing more than 6,171,793 refugees from different parts of the world from exercising their legal and natural right of return.
This paper explains the Trump-Netanyahu Plan to eliminate the refugees issue and the main Israeli violations against refugees during the spread of COVID-19. It as well presents live testimonies from refugees in both occupied Palestine and in exile in light of UNRWA’s financial crisis.
The Trump-Netanyahu Plan Aims to Liquidate the Palestine Refugees Issue and to Disband UNRWA
In 2018, the Trump administration decided to politicize the work and services of UNRWA. As the most significant donor, the U.S. started to drain the financial resources of the Agency and to incite countries to cut UNRWA’s funding under the allegation that the continuation of its work contributes to the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. aims to resettle Palestine refugees in host countries and beyond, and to transfer the responsibility of the remaining refugees to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). For this reason, the White House established its own definition of a Palestinian refugee, revoked the refugee status of the children and grandchildren of refugees that were born outside of Palestine, and accordingly redirected the provided funding for UNRWA. Israel and the Trump administration have been leading a deliberate campaign to end UNRWA’s mandate in a desperate effort to liquidate the Palestinian refugee issue, dismantle the United Nations and its legitimacy, and overthrow the international order altogether. However, their attempts failed in light of the world’s overwhelming vote in November 2019 in support of renewing UNRWA’s mandate for another three years as it has been the case since the establishment of UNRWA per UNGA 302 of 1949.
The Trump Plan announced on 28 January 2020 clearly explains its position on the issue of refugees uttering the Zionist narrative and ideology. Still, it managed to mislead the international community concerning the Nakba of 1948. The Plan equated Palestinian refugees, who were forcibly and systematically displaced from their homes, with Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, calling them “Jewish refugees.” Jewish immigration to Israel, one of the main pillars of Zionism, was part of an organized campaign launched by the Zionist movement for the resettlement in Israel. This organized campaign aimed to attract Jewish immigrants from all over the world.
To legalize its attempts, Israel enacted what is called “the Law of Return,” which provides the right of every Jew to acquire Israeli citizenship as soon as they set foot in the country. The Trump Plan unequivocal call for abandoning UNRWA’s definition of refugees, which includes their descendants, is exacerbating the crisis – even though international norms apply this definition to all refugees around the world. The problem in the case of Palestine, which is caused by Israel’s prolonged occupation, is that the refugee status has lasted for more than seventy years, which has doubled the refugee population due to natural growth.
The Plan also abandons the right of refugees to compensation as an international obligation and refers it to a trust fund, where funds are voluntary, and accordingly, compensation will be distributed within the ceiling of the raised funds. The Plan doesn’t only disregard the right of return of Palestine refugees to their land under Israel’s sovereignty; it also places restrictions, including an Israeli approval and security considerations, on their return to what it alleged will be considered the State of Palestine. It also stated that “the rate of movement of refugees from outside Gaza and the West Bank into the State of Palestine shall be agreed to by the parties and regulated by various factors, including economic forces and incentive structures, such that the rate of entry does not outpace or overwhelm the development of infrastructure and the economy of the State of Palestine, or increase security risks to the State of Israel.”
The Plan deliberately and provocatively described the return of refugees to their homeland as immigration to the State of Palestine which shall be limited, as it considered exceeding a certain number of the Palestinian population, even in the State of Palestine, a threat to Israel’s security. According to the Plan, this number is to be determined by Israel alone. It also stated that ” Upon the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, Palestinian refugee status will cease to exist, and UNWRA will be terminated and its responsibilities transitioned to the relevant governments.”
The Plan ridiculously suggests in an illogical manner that Arab states forcibly detain Palestinian refugees in a state of “limbo to keep the conflict alive”, and that “Their Arab brothers have the moral responsibility to integrate them into their countries as the Jews were integrated into the State of Israel.” Most Arab countries provide Palestinian refugees with the same rights that are granted to citizens of those countries, except the right to acquire the nationality of that country. The reason behind this exception is to preserve the status of Palestine refugees, therefore, safeguarding their right of return and/or compensation, which was provided to them through UN Resolution 194. Hence, this measure is entirely consistent with international legitimacy, and it is also a temporary measure that awaits the implementation of the right of return, which Israel committed itself to, then retreated on its commitment.
Cleary, the comparison between the right of Palestine refugees to return and the settlement of Jews in Israel is irrelevant.
UNRWA: An Escalating Financial and Services Crisis Under COVID-19
The systematic targeting of UNRWA was reflected on the reduction of its funds and the endangerment of its ability to continue providing humanitarian and vital services and assistance to millions of refugees who rely on financial aid in light of the absence of a just solution to their issue. Today, UNRWA needs approximately 1.4 billion USD to fund essential services for around 6.2 million refugees, after it experienced multiple financial crises during its long operation history.
UNRWA stressed in its latest emergency appeal in January 2020 “Palestine refugees in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria will continue to face a range of daunting human development and protection challenges. Central to these pressures is the ongoing occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the blockade of Gaza, the continuing conflict in Syria, the political crisis in Lebanon, and the growing needs in Jordan, all of which continue to dramatically impact the lives of Palestine refugees.”
In light of the current difficult situation that UNRWA is suffering due to the financial crisis and initial budget deficit for the current year, the concern is that it might resort to the reduction of its services or cease some of its programs. And with the spread of COVID-19, UNRWA launched an emergency appeal in March 2020 to provide $14 Million to prepare and respond to the COVID-19 outbreak for three months, between March and May 2020. The call outlined the financial priorities and requirements of public health services as well as highlighted the living conditions, overcrowding, the fragility of the situation, and the physical and mental anxiety of millions of refugees resulting from prolonged years of suffering— all of which would declare them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. It also mentioned that UNRWA will temporarily close its schools and education institutions, and will keep its 144 clinics open to provide the necessary primary health services. UNRWA called on donors, whether governments, institutions, or persons, to help them face what could become a catastrophe of unreasonable proportions in places like the Gaza Strip and Syria. However, UNRWA has only received 4 million dollars, and the available funding is only sufficient until the end of next month, which will prevent humanitarian and health aid from reaching Palestinian refugees. Therefore, UNRWA has launched another appeal on 8 May 2020 to obtain $ 93.4 million for its response to COVID-19, over the next three months, in the fields of health care, personal hygiene, and education. UNRWA considers the required amount as a renewal of its previous emergency appeal to curb the virus among refugees.
In parallel to UNRWA’s financial encirclement, the occupation authorities attempted to block the work of the agency on the ground. The former mayor of Jerusalem, Member of Knesset Nir Barkat, presented a Knesset bill in November 2019 to ban UNRWA activities starting 2020, especially in occupied Jerusalem. Also, at the outset of this year, the so-called Israeli National Security Council approved a decision to close and expel UNRWA-run institutions; to shut down all its health, educational, and service facilities and institutions, and to refrain from issuing licenses for the beginning of the academic year 2020. The Israeli plan aims to establish schools under the Israeli Ministry of Education in Shuafat refugee camp and the village of Anata in Jerusalem to substitute UNRWA schools. It seeks to confiscate all UNRWA properties, placing them under Israel’s Jerusalem municipality, and to cancel the definition of Shuafat as a refugee camp. Additionally, the plan intends to confiscate the land that the refugee camp stands on, to consider it a neighborhood in Jerusalem, in the framework of complete Judaization of the city.
Regarding the spread of COVID-19, UNRWA’s spokesperson, Sami Mushasha, said that the occupation authorities prevented the delivery of all services to the refugees, which are provided through UNRWA and the Ministry of Health. The occupation’s municipality blocked the entry and exit from refugee camps, especially the Shuafat refugee camp, in the framework of facing COVID-19, which will impact the economic situation of Palestinians in Jerusalem — in addition to the ongoing occupation attacks, arrests, incursions, and restrictions on their movement and interests.
UNRWA is the primary source of health services and has been the safety net for Palestinian refugees for more than seventy years. Considering the current spread of COVID-19, their reliance on the Agency has increased. The need for its daily services has become urgent in light of the difficulty to adhere to the UNRWA and WHO guidelines under the circumstances such as the ones present in refugee camps, where social distancing is impossible, and water is scarce for washing hands and maintaining proper hygiene practices.
Israeli Violations Under COVID-19 Outbreak
While counties around the world are taking the necessary protection measures to avoid the further spreading of COVID-19, Palestinians, including refugees, remain vulnerable to the virus and to more Israeli breaches of international law that directly affect including other, their human, social, environmental, health, work, education, food, and security rights. The following list summarizes key Israeli violations before and during the spread of COVID-19 in the Gaza strip and the West Bank, including occupied Jerusalem.
In the Gaza Strip, Israel, the occupying power, has continued to:
- Attack the Gaza Strip to this day, and at a steady pace from 2008 until 2014, which resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and the injury of hundreds of thousands.
- Illegally blockade the Gaza Strip for more than 13 years, in flagrant violation of international law and legitimacy.
- Target Palestinian refugee camps even during the spread of COVID-19 and the declared state of emergency in Palestine. The most prominent examples include: the storming of east Al-Bureij refugee camp, in the central governorate in the Gaza Strip, using military vehicles and bulldozers under cover of surveillance aircrafts for digging and bulldozing activities on 9 March, and the opening fire on citizens east of Al-Maghazi refugee camp on 7 April.
In the West Bank including occupied Jerusalem:
From the beginning of 2020 until 1 May, the occupying forces conducted a serious of violations against refugees, including killings, arrests, assaults using tear gas and live ammunition, and a total of 173 incursions. They killed two refugees and injured 66 others in the West Bank refugee camps. The following are key examples of Israeli attacks against Palestine refugees since the declaration of the state of emergency in the State of Palestine because of COVID-19:
- The repeated and systematic storming into Shuafat refugee camp in occupied Jerusalem; the firing of rubber-coated metal bullets and sonic and tear gas canisters—the raiding and searching of many homes and shops—and the arresting and injuring of many in March and April 2020. During their raids on Al-Jalazon, Al-Dheishah, Qalendia, Aqabat Jabr (Jericho), and Jenin refugee camps: they arrested ten refugees, including a university student and a child. The Israeli occupying forces also detained Mohammad Manasrah, a Palestinian police officer, a resident of Qalandia refugee camp, at what the Palestinians call the “Container” military checkpoint, located to the south of Abu Dis town.
- An estimate of around 70 settlers’ terror attacks against Palestinian refugees has taken place since the beginning of the year.
- The demolition of nearly 50 Palestinian refugee facilities since the beginning of the year until 1 May, in which 70 Palestinians were forcibly displaced. On 13 March, the occupying power, under the pretext of building without a permit, forced Tariq Muhammad Ali to demolish his home located in Shuafat refugee camp, or else he would be obliged to pay exorbitant fines if the demolition was carried out by the Israeli occupying forces.
- Israel also prevents Palestinian refugees from accessing health services due to its extensive system of military checkpoints, annexation wall, earth mounds, and blocked roads, including others. According to UNRWA: “more than 40 refugee communities face challenges in accessing health services” because of 705 permanent obstacles in the West Bank.
Live testimonies from Palestinian Refugees in occupied Palestine and In Exile
– Sami Abu-Salem (50 years old), From Beit Tima Village
Abu-Salim lives in Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. He is a father of four kids, three of whom study at UNRWA schools. He said: “We are refugees from Beit Tima. I have been living here since I was born after my parents took refuge here. In the beginning, this refugee camp was made of tents, and then homes were built with bricks, then asbestos, and finally with cement. Today the camp is made up of squatters; the distance between one house and the other is around 20 centimeters. The houses are surrounded by very narrow alleys, the widest of which is 80 cm to a square meter at best. Therefore, the sun and air do not enter most refugee homes due to their proximity and the vertical construction of the upper floors facing one another.”
Regarding the precautionary measures taken in light of the spread of COVID-19, he added, “It is impossible to maintain cleanliness in the camp, as water is scarce, whether to wash our hands continuously or otherwise. To maintain hygiene, we need permanent availability of water in the tanks; and to buy electric motors to pump water. To operate the motors, we need electricity that we get from time to time, apart from the fact that water is polluted and not suitable for human consumption. Hence, residents, at their expense, purchase clean water for drinking and staying alive only. As for social distancing, it is impossible in this densely populated place.”
Abu Salim asked: “Even if we commit to buying masks, sterilizers, and gloves at our own expense, how can we avoid infection when dozens of refugees pass through the same 80 cm alley or can be in the same small shop or bakery? We have been living under such conditions for decades. So, it’s hard to resolve this massive overcrowding, these bad conditions are tens of years of age, and there are no open spaces for movement or for children to play. Humanitarian assistance medical directions cannot solve such problems.”
Regarding the severe economic conditions facing refugees in the camps, particularly concerning UNRWA’s services, he added, “We also need to buy sterilizers and disinfectants, but between buying sterilizers and buying food, we all buy a bag of bread for our children to secure food first – I haven’t seen any refugee capable of buying sterilizers as required. As for UNRWA, I remember during my childhood how they used to provide us with aid, from clothing to food (such as flour, rice, oil, butter, and canned sardines, and tuna), and other supplies. I’ve always considered that these materials distributed by UNRWA are for survival and not for life itself. Today, UNRWA does not provide what is required of it, considering it is responsible for Palestinian refugees until their return to their homes. They’ve closed schools in compliance with the decision of the Palestinian government. They only receive a limited number of cases in their health clinics and provide them with primary treatment only. UNRWA should have a fundamental role in controlling the spread of the virus in case of an outbreak in the refugee camp, but this is not the case. Nevertheless, I am worried about the United States’ targeting of UNRWA, because its defunding means a lack of attention to resolve the Palestinian issue, therefore, the reduction in health services and others is an indication of the liquidation of all UNRWA services.”
Abu Salim has hyperthyroidism. For more than four years, he tried to travel for treatment in Jerusalem and West Bank hospitals, but the occupying power did not allow him to go outside of the Gaza Strip like thousands of sick people with chronic illnesses. In this context, he added, “the medicine I need is not available in UNRWA clinics, nor can I afford it every time – it’s the same for other sick refugees. I have repeatedly tried to travel through Erez crossing to the West Bank for treatment, but the occupation refuses every permit I apply for.”
Abu Salim called for his return to his original land and home, warning that the inhuman treatment of refugees will lead to further frustration, he said “I want to return to my land, I want the wrongful siege of the Gaza Strip to end per the legal principles, and I want to travel outside (Gaza) for treatment. We want job opportunities for refugees; we do not want supplies or aid packages. We want to live in dignity.” Finally, Abu Salim called on UNRWA not to lay off or fire its staff, not to employ on temporary contracts, to expand and increase its operations in refugee camps, and to focus on the current state of emergency we are going through today under the threat of COVID-19. He concluded by saying, “the spread of COVID-19 in refugee camps will lead to a new catastrophe for the refugees.”
– Muhammad Al-Sheikh (55 years old), From Bayt Thul Village
Al-Sheikh lives in Shuafat refugee camp, and has 13 sons and daughters; he said, “In 1948, my parents were forcibly displaced from Jerusalem, Al-Sharafeh neighborhood. In 1967, I moved with my parents and nine siblings to live in the refugee camp to this day. A 3-by-3 meters house was allocated to each family. At that time, there were around 501 houses, in which every 25 houses had one toilet and one water tap; I remember taking a shower under it.”
“Since Trump came to power in 2017, we have been suffering from escalating Israeli violations, whether against the holy city or the refugee camp. The occupying forces shot nineteen young men in the eyes and demolished 32 homes inside the refugee camp. Two weeks ago, they demolished the house of Amr Lutfi, whom the occupying power gave him the option to either demolish it himself or pay 400,000 shekels for them to demolish it. The same happened to Hoshieh and Alqam families. The occupying forces daily raid the refugee camp; they arrest children, fire tear gas canisters, and use skunk water inside the camp. The annexation wall, military checkpoint, and settlements surrounding us have transformed our lives into a living hell.”
About the role of UNRWA and the popular committees in the refugee camp, especially in light of the spread of COVID-19, Al-Sheikh added, “In light of the complete absence of the occupation municipality’s services, and no follow up by UNRWA on its services, the popular committees in refugee camps, in cooperation with the health committees, have issued directives to the residents of the refugee camp to quarantine and limit their movement. They have sterilized different areas, including streets and organizations’ headquarters, divided the refugee camp into 15 divisions, and prepared quarantine centers for those who were in contact with infected people – all in coordination with the Refugee Affairs Department in the Palestine Liberation Organization, which continuously works with us towards overcoming these severe conditions, and provides us, among other needs, with sterilizers and food parcels.”
Concerning the instructions of the World Health Organization, Al-Sheikh affirmed that “social distancing is impossible to perform in light of the presence of around 90 thousand people in an area of only 203 dunums (50 acres) and with no one providing us with water.” Al-Sheikh held the occupying power responsible for the spread of COVID-19 inside refugee camps; he said: “the responsibility of the occupying power is to oversee residents of the refugee camps and their health, especially when they pay 350 shekels each month to the Israeli Health Insurance.” Al-Sheikh called on the international community, the United Nations, and Arab countries, in particular, to return him and all Palestinian refugees to their original homes.” He concluded, “We do not need food parcels or aid. We want to return to our homes; we have been waiting for too long inside these dark houses of the refugee camps. Our children are martyrs and prisoners. And the refugee camps look like stacked cans atop one other. The people of Palestine are people that radiate with dignity. All refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and Jerusalem still expect their return.”
– Hanan Ali (42 years old) from the city of Haifa. A Refugee for the Third time
Hanan, a mother of two children, is a refugee from the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, a refugee for the second time in Burj Al-Barajne refugee camp in Lebanon, and now a refugee for the third time in the city of Tours in France. Hanan said: “My husband and I decided to flee, in fear for the lives of our children due to the aggravating and tragic situation resulting from the war outbreak in Syria and the siege the refugee camp has suffered. At the time, we endured lack of basic foodstuffs (including children’s milk, bread, flour, etc.) and water and electricity cuts, in addition to daily shelling that led to the loss of my brother and his wife.”
On her second displacement to Lebanon, she added: “We fled to Lebanon, where my relatives live in Burj Al-Barajneh refugee camp, on a perilous journey at the beginning of 2015. The trauma of leaving and forced displacement was very bitter, throughout which I had felt what my parents and grandparents went through when they were forcibly displaced out of Palestine. However, the bigger shock was the very harsh living conditions our relatives and Palestinian refugees live under in Lebanon’s refugee camps. Metal still covers the roofs of their homes, which are extremely close to one another. There are small spaces in the refugee camp, where sewage water and rainwater overflow in the winter, and it is hard for two or three people to walk together. Palestinian refugees also endure severe poverty, especially after Palestinians and Syrians took refuge from Syria after the outbreak of the war there.”
Regarding the living and work conditions in Lebanon’s refugee camps, she added: “The economic situation in the refugee camp has become very hard due to the length of the stay and the arrival of more refugees from Syria. Despite it being cheaper to live in the refugee camp, we decided to leave our relatives’ home and rent somewhere else outside the camp. The overcrowding was no longer bearable, but in the end, we could only rent an unfished room that is still under construction on the outskirts of the refugee camp. My husband tried to find work, but he could not, so he only managed to find different things to do occasionally, and this helped us to generate a day by day income. Thus, we began to rely on UNRWA funds that did not suffice the house rent, especially that they did not commit to providing monthly payments. We also relied on individual donations mainly to pay for the rent. However, after ten months, we found that the money that we receive will not keep us alive.”
As for the third journey of refuge that was full with dangers, she said: “Because of our great concern on the future of our children and their lives, we decided to cross the ocean and flee to a European country as we might find the stability that could mainly provide our kids with food, medicine, and education. Our main concern is to ensure a dignified life for them. I can’t describe the anxiety and tension we felt in the death boats, which took us to one of the European shores and from there to France. All I want to say is that each day I spend in this city, I teach my children that our ultimate stability is in our homeland, Palestine, whether this happened in my lifetime or theirs. We want nothing but to return.”
The International Responsibility Towards Achieving a Just Solution for Palestine Refugees
To facilitate access and humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons, and besieged communities, and all those destroyed by war and deprivation, without prejudice or discrimination, as called for by Envoys of the United Nations Secretary-General for the Middle East on 11 April 2020. However, the current spread of the virus and the inability to fight it due to UNRWA’s lack of financial capabilities will put the region in front of enormous challenges. It will result in harsh consequences, which is the primary responsibility of the occupying power and the Trump Administration. Hereafter, we call on:
- Israel: to end its colonial occupation of Palestine that has lasted for more than half a century, to implement United Nations Resolution 194, and to allow for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes from which they were forcibly displaced. As an occupying power, Israel has the responsibility to respect its obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law, to lift its illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip to avoid a health and human catastrophe in case of a widespread outbreak of COVID-19.
- On governments that host Palestinian refugees: to ensure that refugees have equal access to services and medical care; that they are effectively included in the national response plans to COVID-19, including prevention, testing, and treatment, and to provide them with protection.
- On European countries that host refugees: to implement international standards for the treatment of asylum seekers. To work on the evacuation of refugee camps and detention centers, and transfer them to appropriate housing before it is already too late.
- On the United Nations: to guarantee continuity of the work of UNRWA, considering it as a stabilizing factor in the region until the realization a just solution for Palestine refugees.
- On members of the international community: to work collectively, make all possible efforts to fully fund the budget of the Agency, and work with the Arab host countries in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and with the UNRWA’s advisory committee, donor countries around the world, and others, to provide the required financial, health and political assistance.
- On donor countries to fulfill their annual financial pledges to UNRWA, to ensure the continuation of its work in a manner that is consistent with the current state of emergency to avoid another emergency crisis that exceeds COVID-19.
The emergency conditions that Palestine refugees have been experiencing for the past seventy-two years oblige the international community to hold Israel accountable and responsible for its violations against refugees. Since its establishment, Israel has failed to implement United Nations resolutions and to respect international law. International efforts should be doubled towards finding a political and just solution that can finally end Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine. The international community must express its commitment to implement the rights of the Palestinian people, including refugees, per the continuous reiteration by the United Nations General Assembly that it bears the permanent responsibility for the question of Palestine towards resolving all its aspects. This includes the implementation of UNGA resolution 194, which called for a just solution for Palestine refugees and affirmed their right to return.