Mohammad is a seven-year-old boy living in Gaza, who will enter his 15th year of land, air and sea blockade in June. Like the approximately 300,000 students in Gaza who attend schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), he has attended classes in person and at distance since the outbreak of COVID. 19 pandemic a year ago. He fights against power cuts every day to receive online educational materials prepared by UNRWA teachers who also struggle to access electricity and the internet. Mohammad’s right to education remains inalienable even during a pandemic and humanitarian crisis.
He is only one of 5.7 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA today, many of whom have faced unimaginable suffering since their ancestors were displaced from their homelands more than 70 years. The first anniversary of the global lockdown marks 12 months of even greater suffering for Palestinian refugees in the region.
As Commissioner General of UNRWA, my responsibility is to ensure that Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, receive the basic services to which they have the right. And yet, over the past year, UNRWA has come under attack of unprecedented ferocity and bias.
The most frequent accusation against us is that UNRWA is playing a political role. It couldn’t be further from the truth. UNRWA’s mandate is to provide direct and life-saving humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. This is the priority and the objective of the agency. He doesn’t play politics. UNRWA, like all other United Nations agencies and international NGOs, is bound by the four humanitarian principles (humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence) enshrined in two resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly.
This means that all UNRWA operations are exclusively guided by the alleviation of suffering (humanity), while ensuring that our response is independent of military and political objectives (independence), without discrimination (impartiality). and without taking sides in the conflict (neutrality). . Being political is antithetical to being humanitarian.
A strict commitment to humanitarian principles guides all of our positions and decisions. Each UNRWA staff member is trained in respect for the principles of neutrality and non-discrimination and is held accountable and disciplined for any violation of these principles. In the 711 UNRWA schools in the region, our students organize themselves in school parliaments and learn about the importance of human rights, equality and tolerance. UNRWA teachers are constantly trained in how to critically approach any educational content that is not in line with UN values. It is a testament to our 28,000 employees and some 532,000 students that they overwhelmingly affirm these values, even in emergency and crisis situations, remaining neutral even during conflict.
The recent attacks on UNRWA – alleging that we teach “jihad” and “terrorism” – are biased attempts to drag a principled humanitarian agency into a highly politicized sphere where it does not belong. In addition, they mistakenly view UNRWA students as prone to or in favor of jihad and terrorism. There should be no tolerance for stereotypes. Strict respect for neutrality and non-discrimination ensures that we can work with all parties to be able to assist and protect Palestinian refugees, whether by importing medicines for our 144 health clinics to which 3 , 1 million refugees access each year, obtaining visas for our teachers to attend. conferences abroad, or ensuring the sanctity of our buildings in times of war.
As the largest UN or humanitarian agency operating in one of the Middle East’s most complex and long-standing conflicts, we know better than anyone the importance of remaining neutral. The ongoing attacks and unsubstantiated allegations against UNRWA are only a political tool to delegitimize the agency and the Palestinian refugees it protects. These attacks aim to distract from the hardships Palestinian refugees face as a result of their continued dispossession and displacement. In the face of these political attacks, it is the voices of the most vulnerable such as Mohammad and his classmates, who struggle to learn in the most difficult contexts, that are stifled. Shaking the foundations of the agency which provides aid to millions of people across the Middle East is yet another blow to a highly volatile region.
Just imagine a Middle East without UNRWA and an unresolved conflict. In the absence of a political solution, no UNRWA means no education for half a million children or no dispensary for 3.1 million Palestinian refugees per year and above all no sense of security and stability for millions of Palestinian refugees who feel increasingly discriminated against, disenfranchised and marginalized. As humanitarians, finding a solution to this conflict is not within our competence. But ensuring that the human rights of Palestinian refugees are fully respected and that their voices are not silenced until the international community finds a solution, it is.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.