From recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to cutting the American contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the Trump Administration has taken a sharp turn in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. To be sure, past US administrations have not been neutral by any means, but this administration is taking the Israel bias to a new level. President Donald Trump decided to toe the line of the Israeli right-wing government, in contradiction with longstanding US policy and international law.
News broke on January 2, 2018, when President Trump tweeted “… we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED [sic] OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue … peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, wasted no time echoing the president, calling for freezing US funds to UNRWA until Palestinians return to the negotiation table. However, it appears that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a more influential role in the administration’s final decision to cut the funds only partially.
On January 16, the US Department of State sent a letter to UNRWA saying it would deliver $60 million of the $125 million originally planned for distribution by January 1, 2018, thus withholding $65 million for future consideration. The move came less than a month after President Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem and his intention to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The US State Department even announced recently, as a further slap in the face of the Palestinians, that the embassy move is planned to take place in May to coincide with “Israel’s 70th anniversary,” which is when Palestinians mark the nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) and 70 years of displacement and occupation.
Reactions to the funding cuts came from two opposing camps: as a denouncement from the United Nations and the international community with warnings of humanitarian crises, and as praise from the Israeli and pro-Israel far-right groups with calls for dismantling UNRWA altogether. This US policy shift has important short-term and long-term implications including exacerbating the humanitarian crises and threatening the status of Palestinian refugees, changing the international political and humanitarian role of the United States, perpetuating US bias in the peace process, and opening the door for further US policies that espouse Israeli far-right positions.
Humanitarian and Political Considerations
The most immediate consequence of this move involves the humanitarian dimension. UNRWA was founded in 1949 after the establishment of the state of Israel, which expelled over 750,000 Palestinians and left them displaced. What was originally set up as a temporary agency continues to support more than five million Palestinian refugees across the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. UNRWA acts as the de facto administration in many of those areas and refugee camps where governments are not able to provide local assistance including schools, health care, and relief and public services. More than half of UNRWA’s budget (54 percent) is spent on education while 17 percent is spent on health, with over 9 million health care visits per year.
Almost the entire population of the Gaza Strip receives aid and services from UNRWA. One of the most densely populated places on earth, the Gaza Strip is a man-made humanitarian disaster. With regular Israeli attacks and a continuing illegal blockade, thousands of people in Gaza have been killed, hundreds of thousands left homeless, and millions have been living under siege for years, with no access to basic needs. The UNRWA budget cut by the United States will affect those most vulnerable, such as the besieged population of Gaza and Palestinian refugees in Syria, and will put at risk basic health services and schooling for millions of refugees and over half a million children.
While other countries have stepped up to foot the bill following the US decision, these funds are unlikely to cover the agency’s needs as UNRWA had been facing a financial deficit even before the US cuts. With $370 million in contributions in 2016, the United States is traditionally the largest donor to UNRWA, covering one third of the agency’s budget. At the end of the day, it is those refugees in greatest need who would suffer the most from this decision by the Trump Administration. Nevertheless, the politics of blackmail and revenge have not seemed to change the position of the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.
The funding pressure from the Trump Administration came in response to the Palestinian Authority’s push for United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions denouncing President Trump’s Jerusalem decision in December 2017, both of which received overwhelming international support. Ambassador Haley insisted on the participation of the Palestinian Authority in (nonexistent) peace talks with Israel in exchange for aid. She even said in late December that the Trump Administration was “taking names” of countries that voted against the United States at the United Nations, thus intimidating them with threatening language.
This sort of blackmail is not new. For years, threats to cut funds to Palestinians have been used to coerce the Palestinian Authority to comply with US policy—while the same does not apply to US aid to Israel. The United States gives Israel $3.8 billion per year, with the cumulative amount of US aid to Israel since 1949 estimated at $138 billion. Israel is the only country that does not have to account for the aid received from the United States; therefore, aid to Israel has almost never been conditioned on its compliance with international law, human rights, or even US policy or requests. Former President George H.W. Bush briefly withheld loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 to force then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to attend the Madrid Conference. This further demonstrates the imbalance of power in any process of negotiations and the biased position of the United States that compromises its ability to serve as a credible mediator in this situation.
The irony of this political bullying tactic is that UNRWA is not the Palestinian Authority; it is an agency of the United Nations. Cutting funding to UNRWA will probably aggravate the humanitarian disaster and push the vulnerable refugee populations further into despair, rather than coerce President Abbas to comply with US dictates. Although UNRWA funding goes to the United Nations and not to the Palestinian Authority, such facts are only small details for the current US administration. As far as Trump and his supporters are concerned, he saved money and fulfilled a campaign promise, all the while pleasing the right-wing establishment in the United States and Israel and his base of evangelical Christians. As for Haley, she could be planning a presidential bid in the future and would need good pro-Israel credentials.
Cutting humanitarian aid for political gains is undemocratic, at best. Reducing aid to UNRWA, a UN agency that provides health services, education, and protection to more than five million vulnerable refugees, is yet another step by the Trump Administration to undermine human rights and international law. Using funding that supports millions of innocent and needy civilians for political purposes goes against the democratic and humanitarian values of the United States, the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid.
Changing the Narrative on Refugees: The Most Salient Consequence
While the humanitarian dimension is most urgent, the possible repercussions regarding the status of Palestinian refugees represent an even more dangerous development. The US shift on UNRWA has been exploited by the pro-Israel establishment to reignite discussions of reclassifying Palestinian refugees and dismantling UNRWA altogether.
Annual US aid to Palestinians falls within three categories: $368 million to UNRWA, $363 million to the Palestinian Authority for US Agency for International Development (USAID) projects, and $36 million to the Palestinian Authority for security—mostly security coordination with Israel. While the Trump Administration has threatened to cut aid to Palestinians, the choice of slashing funds for UNRWA is a peculiar one and might be an indication of what is yet to come.
UNRWA has traditionally received bipartisan support in the United States. Even Nikki Haley herself has shown support for the UN agency. Only a month earlier, in a speech at the United Nations on December 18, 2017, she touted US support for UNRWA and her visits to Palestinian refugee camps where she met with men, women, and children. “I have advocated on their behalf,” she said. So why the sudden change of heart on refugees and UNRWA?
Just as the Trump Administration has adopted the right-wing Israeli narrative and positions on issues like Jerusalem, thus condoning the capture of territory by force and in contradiction to international law, the UNRWA move seems to be a further embrace of Netanyahu’s agenda by the United States, this time regarding Palestinian refugees.
After the US announcement on UNRWA, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the opportunity to ignite Israeli and pro-Israel right-wing claims about Palestinian refugees by describing them as “fictitious” and calling for UNRWA to disappear. “UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem. It also perpetuates the narrative of the right of return, as it were, in order to eliminate the State of Israel; therefore, UNRWA needs to pass from the world,” he said, adding that UNRWA funds should be transferred to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Netanyahu also said he communicated to Nikki Haley that “it’s time to dismantle UNRWA.” This far-right Israeli propaganda aims to reverse the narrative of Palestinian refugees: that their existence is due to the presence of a dedicated UN agency, and not because of Israeli expulsion and denial of the Palestinians’ internationally recognized right of return.
These are not new claims, but Israel’s awakened campaign has been echoed in the United States by the media and the policy establishment alike. The US administration’s leaning toward this position presents a dangerous shift. After Trump took one of the most important issues—Jerusalem—“off the table,” the trend has been moving toward also omitting the right of return from future peace negotiations.
The Politics of Refugee Status and Right of Return
The push to defund UNRWA and designate Palestinian refugees under UNHCR, what Netanyahu calls “a simple proposal,” is actually a consequential political maneuver because, while UNRWA has an important humanitarian role, its mandate also has a political dimension. Created by UN General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV), UNRWA works with “Palestine refugees” and is mandated to provide interim measures and relief “pending the just resolution” of the refugee question. The classification of Palestine Refugees includes persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period from June 1, 1946 to May 15, 1948, and who “lost both home and means of livelihood” as a result of the 1948 conflict, and the definition extends to persons displaced by “the 1967 and subsequent hostilities.”
In recognition of this important clause, the UN General Assembly consistently affirms the importance of UNRWA’s work “pending the just resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees” and regularly renews UNRWA’s mandate in the absence of a political solution.
Nonetheless, the most criticized and attacked aspect of UNRWA is that refugee status is passed down to descendants of Palestinian refugee males, thus affirming the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. As such, the plight of displaced Palestinians is not extinguished with the passing of the first generation of refugees. Critics claim that the passing down of refugee status is wrongfully unique to Palestinians, and that dissolving UNRWA and dealing with Palestinian refugees under UNHCR would abolish the right of return, as Arab states would sign onto the 1951 refugee convention (of which Israel is a signatory, though it breaches this convention) and naturalize Palestinian refugees.
However, not only is UNRWA’s mandate renewed and supported by the United Nations’ member states, the right of return of Palestinian refugees is enshrined in international law, as has been asserted by UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and reaffirmed by multiple subsequent resolutions at the UN Security Council and General Assembly. In addition, article 13 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) establishes that, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.”
Furthermore, UNHCR’s mandate considers voluntary repatriation (being the choice of the refugees themselves) as the optimal and preferred solution globally. The UNHCR’s Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status (Chapter VI, paragraph 184) also affirms that dependents of refugees are granted refugee status based on the principle of family unity. Technically, refugees and their families retain their status until a durable solution is achieved. Palestinian refugees would also fall under UNHCR’s protracted refugee status, where protracted refugee situations are created and sustained when the original causes of exile remain unsettled. Like many other victims of protracted situations, Palestinian refugees were also victims of forced displacement and conflict that have not yet been resolved in a just and peaceful manner.
Therefore, UNRWA’s mandate can only end by member states of the UN General Assembly when a just and durable solution for the refugees is achieved, one that addresses the underlying roots of the conflict and is consistent with international law and human rights. It is not UNRWA that “perpetuates” the status of Palestinians as refugees; rather, the refugees remain the responsibility of Israel for not allowing their return to their homes, in accordance with international law.
In classic Israeli fashion, Netanyahu and his supporters in the United States seek to distract from Palestinian rights as enshrined by international law. Palestinian refugees are entitled to their internationally accepted rights. The issue of Palestinian refugees cannot be wished away and can only be solved as part of a just and lasting solution to the conflict. Any measures by Israel and the United States to change their status would not only be an obstacle to a just peace agreement, but it would also be in direct contravention of human rights and international law.
While Netanyahu and his friends in the Trump Administration may not be able to make Palestinian refugees disappear, it is clear that a peace proposal from the Trump Administration that recognizes Palestinian rights and humanity, let alone international legal frameworks, will not be forthcoming anytime soon.