The Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies (CHS) held a public lecture on Thursday, March 28, 2024, at 12:00 Doha time, featuring Professor Riccardo Bocco, Emeritus Professor of Political Sociology at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology—The Geneva Graduate Institute (IHEID), Switzerland. The lecture was under the title of "The UNRWA after Six Months of War in Gaza" and it was moderated by Dr Laurent Lambert, Head of the Humanitarian and Refugee Studies Unit at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies (CHS).

During the lecture, Prof. Bocco shed light on the peculiar inception of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East in 1948 following the Nakba, the mass displacement of Palestinian refugees from their homeland. Prof. Bocco stressed that the UNRWA is an agency conceived to assist the Palestinian refugees displaced in Palestine and neighboring countries of the Near East and deliver them humanitarian aid and some welfare services until they return home or are compensated by the State of Israel. He explained that its mandate was to deliver aid and services, not to resolve the conflict.

Prof. Bocco highlighted several distinct fields related to the duties of UNRWA which include education, health and basic social welfare which have become crucial in Palestine and the wider area. In this vein, he referred to UNRWA as a "blue state", as it serves a quasi-state function that is crucial for the people of Palestine. He mentioned how following the Oslo Accord, former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat requested UNRWA to remain and continue its work, recognising the importance of its work in the region.

The lecture also touched on the challenges that UNRWA has been facing. UNRWA has historically been criticised by Israel precisely due to its steadfast support for the Palestinian people. It constitutes a constant reminder of the refugees from the Nakba of 1948 and challenges the revisionist Zionist myth that Palestine was a land without people. Though UNRWA has long been criticised by Tel Aviv, following October 7th, UNRWA has been facing a major crisis due to Israeli accusations of complicity and had temporary lost significant funding from Western donors. The annual funding from the USA, the main donor, has still not been resumed. Considering the sheer number of those whom UNWRA helps, Prof Bocco refers to this abandonment as a "western moral collapse," highlighting how the end of this funding could be disastrous on a humanitarian level.

Prof. Bocco's speech was followed by a Q&A round with the audience, which touched on the possibility of replacing UNRWA with other UN bodies like the UNHCR or OCHA. He clearly stated in his response that UNRWA is crucial to the region and irreplaceable. And even if UNRWA were to be replaced, many of the workers in the replacement organisation would likely have to be former UNRWA workers. He also poignantly asked—who would have an interest in dismantling or replacing the organisation that brings aid and stability to the region?

Prof. Bocco mentioned how UNRWA is a symbol for the Palestinian cause and a reminder to the world of resolution 194—the right to return. Prof. Bocco further highlighted that UNRWA applies to the descendants of the refugees of 1948 who are also far from their homeland, so their claims are never forgotten and their right to return remains timeless.

About Prof Riccardo Bocco

Prof. Bocco earned his PhD from Sciences Po, Paris and holds degrees in development studies, cultural anthropology, and Arabic language. During the 2000s, he led large-scale research projects on international aid in the Near East for various United Nations agencies. He was a research director and professor at the former Graduate Institute of Development Studies (IUED) and the Geneva Graduate Institute, where he taught Political Sociology in the Anthropology and Sociology Department. His fieldwork experience spans over three and a half decades in the Middle East—particularly Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine-Israel. He has successively worked on issues of development policies and State-building; on humanitarian aid and refugees; and monitoring the impact of international aid on civilian populations.

About the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies

CHS is an independent centre for research and practice based in Doha, Qatar that is dedicated to promoting dialogue, understanding, and effective responses to the challenges of conflict and humanitarian crises. CHS recognises the importance of creating spaces for inclusive dialogue between local communities affected by crises to raise awareness among stakeholders. The Center reflects the value of inclusivity in all aspects of its activities, ensuring that a plurality of voices are provided platforms, in particular marginalised or excluded groups. CHS believes that a more stable world with more inclusion of the destitute is not only possible but a moral duty.

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