Mohammad looks completely healthy at first glance. A 5-year-old Palestinian boy with fair skin and a boyish smile, he often plays in an alleyway just outside his tiny one-bedroom home in Shatila--a 67-year-old enclave located in the southern suburbs of Beirut. As his mother, Sondos, watched her son do so again, she revealed his desperate need to have an operation soon. “My son has epilepsy,” Sondos, a woman with nicotine stained teeth, told The Daily Star. “He had his first seizure in a playground when he was 2 years old. We can’t afford an operation and the hospitals here [in Shatila] don’t offer much help.”
Sondos is one of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon incensed at the U.N. Relief Works Agency for modifying a health care program that will now require patients to pay for a portion of their primary care. While UNRWA insists the changes provide more coverage for people who have long-term illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, their message has done little to whither popular discontent.
Instead, camp residents and Palestinian factions in Lebanon fear that primary health care cuts are part of a greater conspiracy to eliminate UNRWA all together, an agency that many Palestinians consider vital in preserving their right to return to their homeland.
Manar, a Palestinian social worker in Shatila camp, said that she doesn’t even believe that UNRWA will reallocate the money to help the people they promise to care for. Coping with severe tonsillitis, she adds she’s unable to locate employment to pay for an operation that would relieve her from austere pain.
“UNRWA has always stolen money from us so we know they’re lying to us,” she said after the power cut out in her room.
“If they just took away the salary from one foreign worker in the agency, they could help 1,000 Palestinians in Lebanon with that money. Instead, the world wants UNRWA to disappear because then the Palestinian problem will disappear. ”
UNRWA is the only remaining U.N. body to directly address the needs of Palestinians since the U.N. Conciliation Commission for Palestine was discontinued in 1952.
The UNCCP was designated with the task to oversee international efforts to achieve a final and durable solution to the Palestinian question. More specifically, its mandate was to supervise the implementation of U.N resolution 194 which stipulates the right for Palestinians to return to their homeland after they were displaced during the creation of Israel.
In the eyes of many Palestinians in Lebanon, UNRWA has evolved to embody this task even though it’s not a part of its operational mandate. This is why any perceived cuts to UNRWA services are popularly viewed as an attempt to compromise their right of return.
Zizette Darkazally, the senior public information officer for UNRWA in Lebanon, Tuesday told the International Business Times that “[Palestinian] groups have portrayed [the health care changes] in a bigger context ... using inflammatory words like intifada [the Arabic word for uprising] and telling people, ‘UNRWA is going to disappear.”
Ali Barakeh, the spokesperson for Hamas, insists that viewing the new health care format outside of any political context undermines the significance of cut backs to the primary health sector.
“We fear these cutbacks come in the context of a project to cancel UNRWA and its work. These measures contravene the U.N. decisions that created UNRWA in 1949 and charged it with providing relief and work for Palestinian refugees in the Near East until they return to their homes,” he told The Daily Star over the phone.
A just solution, however, seems like an illusion to many young Palestinian refugees, as reflected in the increasing number of people who have smuggled themselves out of the country in the last few years.
In Lebanon, Palestinians are excluded from the political and social sphere. They are barred from working in over 25 high-skill professions, forming their own association, or owning property in the country. According to UNRWA, 60 percent of the population lives in abject poverty. It’s no surprise, then, that many fret over the thought of having to cover a portion of their health costs alone.
In Mohammad’s case, however, he may very well qualify for tertiary care, a provision that is supposed to have much wider coverage with the latest changes to the healthcare program. Yet his family isn’t convinced that’s the case, underscoring the larger issue of distrust between the agency and the very people its supposed to assist.
Their grievances were broadly on display Friday when nearly a thousand Palestinians gathered outside UNRWA’s headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Demonstrators said they came from all parts of the country to preserve the existence of an agency that they consider inextricably linked to their own. That is, they emphasized, until they return to their homeland in peace.
“UNRWA is responsible for us,” insisted Manar, as she struggled to get up from the concrete floor of her home. “That is why we refuse to let them disappear.” – Additional reporting by Philip Issa