Page last updated at 07:57 GMT, Saturday, 26 December 2009

No celebration as UNRWA turns 60

Palestinian boy in Gaza
More than 80% of people from Gaza rely on UN aid

By Barbara Plett
BBC UN correspondent

The UN agency which looks after Palestinian refugees commemorates its 60th anniversary this month. But there's no celebration.

Prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement look dim and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is keenly aware that its "temporary" mandate could continue for years, even decades.

And some say the agency is part of the problem.

I think for every Palestinian refugee here, when he sees the flag related to UNRWA, that means for 60 years we are still under occupation with no rights
Hussein Mansour
Headmaster and Gaza resident

UNRWA was set up in 1949 to look after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who fled or were driven out of what became Israel during the first Arab-Israeli war.

It was supposed to provide short-term shelter pending the refugees' right of return to their homes - a right enshrined in UN resolutions.

But 60 years on, the Palestinian refugees are still stateless.

'No rights'

UNRWA has now mushroomed into a huge institution providing housing, health services, education and emergency food supplies to over four million refugees in five countries.

Hussein Mansour, headmaster and Gaza resident
Headmaster Hussein Mansour has mixed feelings about UNRWA

Hussein Mansour is an example of how the UN agency has helped many Palestinians.

The 46-year-old educator grew up in Gaza in a shelter built by UNRWA to house his parents, who had fled their village, al-Masmiya, in what was Mandate Palestine but is now southern Israel.

Because Mr Mansour's father died he was classified as a hardship case and received extra food rations.

He attended UN schools and received UN assistance for college. Now he is the head of a school for the deaf, which also receives support from UNRWA.

Mr Mansour is very much aware of what he owes to the agency, but for him its existence is a constant reminder of his statelessness.

"I think for every Palestinian refugee here, when he sees the flag or places related to UNRWA, that means for more than 60 years we are still under occupation with no rights. We are still dependent on the United Nations, not independent," he said.

He tells his children their real home is in al-Masmiya, not Gaza.

Right of return

The right of return remains one of the most contentious issues in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

We have a problem when UNRWA is political and partisan

Mark Regev
Israeli government spokesman

The Palestinians say the right must be recognised.

The Israelis say any mass return of refugees to their original homes and lands would change Israel's character as a Jewish state.

It also charges that UNRWA and the refugee issue have been exploited politically by the Arab states in their conflict with Israel.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev questions why refugee status is passed on to second and third generations.

"We have a problem when UNRWA is political and partisan. Why haven't Palestinian refugees been resettled? And have extreme politics prevented that from happening?" Mr Regev told the BBC.

Divisive mission

This diplomatic war is why Israel does not support the annual renewal of UNRWA's mandate, even though it has no problem with the agency's humanitarian function.

Israel's deputy UN ambassador Danny Carmon argues that UNRWA cannot be viewed as a solely humanitarian organisation.

The idea that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee crisis is absurd
Christopher Gunness
UNRWA spokesman

"UNRWA receives yearly backing from the international community, from the UN General Assembly with very politicised, anti-Israeli resolutions that set the mandate for it to work," Mr Carmon said.

UNRWA denies any political agenda, pointing out that refugee status which continues through generations is not unique to the Palestinians.

"The idea that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee crisis is absurd," said the agency's spokesman Chris Gunness.

Mr Gunness argues that the refugee crisis can only be solved as part of a comprehensive peace plan. Until politicians broker a deal the refugee crisis will continue.

But he argues that UNRWA sometimes has to take on an advocacy role, not least because of Israeli policies that affect the refugees.

For example, an Israeli blockade has prevented recovery from the Israeli operation a year ago that devastated Gaza.

Israel says the offensive and the blockade are both aimed at Hamas, which controls Gaza and has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, not Gazan civilians.

Mr Gunness argues that the agency's role is born out of humanitarian necessity rather than politics.

"We have a million refugees in Gaza, 80% are aid dependent, and we have to advocate against this cruel collective punishment that is making life so miserable," said Mr Gunness.

"Let's be clear: this is not a humanitarian crisis caused by natural disaster. This is a humanitarian crisis of choice, of a direct political choice," he added.

Few doubt that until there's a political resolution of the conflict, UNRWA will remain. No one wants it dismantled, not even the Israelis.

But after 60 years the only solution refugees like Mr Mansour say they will accept is the right to return - either to an independent state of their own, or their former homes in what is now Israel.

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