‘If UNRWA goes, so do our dreams of returning home’, Palestinians fear | Occupied West Bank News

Aida, Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – Among the children playing on the street in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank is 10-year-old Ahmad Damaseh who dreams of becoming a doctor when he grows up.

He belongs to the fourth generation of the Damaseh family to live in this refugee camp since his ancestors fled the Nakba from the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Deir Aban 75 years ago as some 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes to make way for the creation of the state of Israel.

Central to Damaseh’s dream is a United Nations agency that has provided for Palestinian refugees in occupied Palestinian territory and neighbouring nations since then.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) provided the Damaseh family with their very first tent in Aida.

It is responsible for 702 schools providing education to 500,000 children and students, according to Anwar Hammam, deputy head of the PLO’s Refugee Affairs Department. It provides aid to 400,000 people living in the Aida refugee camp.

At the heart of UNRWA’s mission is the idea that it would support displaced Palestinians until they could return to their homes, something Israel has denied generations of Palestinians.

Israel has also set its sights on UNRWA, which is now on the verge of collapse as funding is withdrawn and more news headlines imply that Israel and the United States want to end its mandate.

Ahmad Damaseh, 10, \dreams of being a doctor but the loss of UNRWA services like schools may mean an end to those dreams [Monjed Jadou/Al Jazeera]

After the Israeli government accused the organisation of having links to those responsible for attacks by the Qassam Brigades and other armed Palestinian fighters on southern Israel on October 7, many large donors and donor nations – who together provide more than 80 percent of UNRWA’s funding – have withdrawn their financial support.

Only a handful of countries, including Belgium, Norway, Ireland and Saudi Arabia, have pledged to continue funding. The largest donors, including the US, United Kingdom, Germany and Spain, have suspended funding altogether.

For now, residents of Aida say, their dreams are on hold and possibly gone forever.

‘No one else can manage the camps’

Aida refugee camp, located between Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Jerusalem, is home to more than 8,000 Palestinian refugees, two schools for boys and girls and a clinic serving refugees from all the camps near Bethlehem.

For seven-and-a-half decades, four generations of the Damaseh family have held onto the hope of returning to their original village.

Funding crisis UNRWA in Aida camp
Children in the Aida refugee camp return home from the UNRWA school they attend [Monjed Jadou/Al Jazeera]

The Damasehs have relied on UNRWA for food, healthcare and education through the years since the Nakba. Now, they are terrified of what will become of them if the agency is forced to cease all operations in the near future, as it has warned might happen.

“There is no Palestinian or international entity capable of assuming the responsibility for the camps, neither in education nor in health,” said Ahmad’s father, Muhammad. Like others in the community, he strongly believed the cessation of funding to UNRWA is part of a larger plot against Palestinians.

“As refugees, we know there is a major political plan to end UNRWA’s existence, preventing the right of return. This is something we will not allow. My son, Ahmed, will study in Aida camp school until he returns to our original village,” he added defiantly.

If UNRWA disappears, they said, so does the dream of ever returning home. Instead, it is likely that these camps will be absorbed as towns under the wider Palestinian Authority.

Funding crisis UNRWA in Aida camp
The entrance to the UNRWA-run Aida camp school. UNRWA operates 702 schools for 500,000 children and students across the occupied Palestinian territory [Monjed Jadou/Al Jazeera]

While Ahmad’s father is particularly concerned about the future of his son’s education – and what that means for his dreams to study medicine – his grandmother, 70-year-old Haleema Damaseh worries about healthcare services.

Even before the war in Gaza began last October, services offered by UNRWA clinics had been shrinking, with only medical treatment and prescriptions for chronic conditions available, said Muhammad. Even that will stop if UNRWA can no longer operate.

His mother, Haleema, told Al Jazeera, “The UNRWA clinic has stopped providing diabetes medication, among others, which I need. So, my son buys it for nearly $100 a month.”

She feared this would not be sustainable for the longer term, especially with the severe economic crisis in the occupied West Bank which has taken hold due to the crackdown on the occupied Palestinian territories since the war began.

This crackdown has taken the form of multiple roadblocks throughout the occupied West Bank, raids on camps and towns and a strict curfew on residents. Employment has plummeted and prices have soared, while the Palestinian Authority is struggling to pay salaries to public employees.

Funding crisis UNRWA in Aida camp
‘Palestinians will fight against losing UNRWA.’ Saeed Al-Azaha works for the PLO’s Refugee Affairs Department and warns of rising tensions if UNRWA services are halted [Monjed Jadou/Al Jazeera]

‘Palestinians will take a stand’

Saeed al-Azha, the head of the Popular Committee for Services in Aida, part of the Refugee Affairs Department of the PLO, explained that the camps have been raided often, with incursions and arrests increasing recently, exacerbating conditions for Palestinian refugees.

He warned that conditions would only deteriorate further if funding to UNRWA operations were suspended.

“Palestinian refugees will fight against losing UNRWA,” he said. “They will take a stand in all five regions where the agency works – Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, in addition to the occupied West Bank.

“UNRWA holds political significance as a witness to the Nakba and as an UN-mandated agency that no Palestinian wants to lose before refugees get their right of return to their homes from which they were displaced in 1948.”

UNRWA Operations Director in the West Bank Region Adam Pollock told Al Jazeera that the removal of UNRWA and its services “would be a recipe for escalating tensions, especially considering that the youth population in the camps exceeds 30 percent”.

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