Listen to the article

The decision by six European countries to discontinue funding for the United Nations refugee agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) stirred deep concern among Palestinian refugees as well as their host countries, especially Lebanon, which is already reeling under severe economic, financial and political crises.

For Palestinians, the move is being denounced as an attempt to eliminate their cause and their right to return to their land and properties. For Lebanon, it is a recipe for disaster that will further destabilize the country, which hosts some 400,000 refugees (registered with UNRWA) scattered in 12 refugee camps.

The UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland followed the United States, Australia and Canada in pausing funding to the aid agency after allegations by Israel that some of its staff was involved in the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

Samir Abu Afash, Secretary-General of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Beirut, underlined that the Palestinian people’s attachment to UNRWA is tantamount to their attachment to the right of return to their homeland.

“UNRWA was the official witness of our nakba (the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians) in 1948 and 1967. It was established to reaffirm our right to return to Palestine,” Abu Afash said in an interview with This Is Beirut.

“Drying up UNRWA’s funds is a scheme to wipe out the Palestinian cause. It is a purely political stance meant to achieve what Israel has failed to achieve by war, namely to drive our people to despair, paving the way for displacing them once again,” Abu Afash added.

UNRWA was set up to help refugees of the 1948 war at Israel’s founding and provides education, health and aid services to some 6 million Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It has also played a pivotal aid role during the war that Israel launched to eliminate Hamas after the October 7 attacks.

Lebanon, which has long dreaded the settlement of the refugees, warned that cutting off aid to UNRWA would be “a historical mistake.”

Caretaker Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib has warned, after receiving US Ambassador Lisa Johnson, that the move will constitute a threat to regional security and the security of host countries.

A source close to the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in Beirut, who spoke to This Is Beirut on condition of anonymity, condemned the “collective punishment” of millions of Palestinians on the basis of Israeli allegations.

The source said the DFLP has called on millions of refugees in the occupied territories and in the diaspora “to organize political and mass movements that rise to the level of this dangerous event, especially in the capitals of the countries that took part in the crime of draining the financial resources of UNRWA.”

The source also bemoaned “the absence of a unified Palestinian national project” and the “destructive dispersion and division of the Palestinian leadership,” in reference to the rift between Hamas and the PLO.

Depriving refugees of access to education, medical care and economic aid provided by UNRWA would be mostly felt in Lebanon, according to Abu Afash.

“The Palestinians in Lebanon will be the most affected compared to other host countries because under Lebanese laws, they are banned from exercising 73 professions. Without the services offered by UNRWA, their conditions will worsen. This will pose tremendous economic and social burdens on the refugees and the Lebanese state,” he said, adding that the PLO will be engaging the UN and “calls on countries that announced the cessation of their support for UNRWA to immediately reverse their decision.”

Following Israel’s allegations, UNRWA said it had opened an investigation into several employees. The employees in question are twelve according to Palestinian sources.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement that he was “shocked by the suspension of funds to the Agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff, especially given the immediate action that UNRWA took by terminating their contracts and asking for a transparent independent investigation.”