The United States announced this week that it was withholding $65 million of a $125 million aid package for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), demanding that Palestinians return to the negotiating table. The move was prompted by the Palestinian Authority’s dismissal of Washington’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process after U.S. president Donald Trump declared disputed Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.
In a series of tweets in early January, Trump stated: “… we pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect … with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
The official statement called for a “fundamental re-examination of UNRWA, both in the way it operates and the way it is funded.” This position was promptly countered by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who expressed concern regarding Washington’s decision. “I strongly hope that in the end, it will be possible for the United States to maintain the funding of UNRWA,” he told AFP. “UNRWA is not a Palestinian institution, but a UN institution,” he said, adding that the agency is “an important factor of stability” in the Middle East.
But is UNRWA, dedicated exclusively to Palestinians, a genuinely impartial institution? For the stability it evidently creates, does it solve problems, or does it prolong them?
A closer look into the modus operandi of UNRWA reveals an interesting paradox of an organization that thrives on a vicious cycle of people it is supposed to save. Yet, even if all of this is true, and even if dismantling the UNRWA might be the right thing to do, the aftermath of this move remains a political minefield.
What is UNRWA?
Israel’s establishment in 1948 was immediately followed by a joint offensive of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Arab armies suffered a resounding defeat in the first of many conflicts with the Jewish state, and eventually signed armistice agreements with Israel. In the aftermath, Transjordan occupied, and later annexed, Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem (today known as West Bank), while Egypt retained and administered the Gaza Strip.
The war concluded with the displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians — while some left of their own volition, a large number were expelled. Almost half of them, 320,000, moved to Transjordan, which eventually granted them citizenship and full rights, remaining, to this date, the only Arab state to do so. A third remained in camps in the Gaza region, 100,000 Palestinians went to Lebanon and 75,000 went to Syria.
Over the following years, Israel absorbed approximately the same number of Jewish refugees from Arab states.
Israel refused to negotiate about refugees’ right of return and compensation unless the talks were part of a larger peace process, but Arab leaders refused the offer, even when the Jewish government showed a readiness to accept the proposed Arab state alongside Israel and the internationalization of Jerusalem. Thus began the multidecade plight of Palestinian refugees, whose “interim” nature of existence came to push the boundaries of the mere definition of the word “refugee.”
In the aftermath of the war and failed negotiations, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was established to address the immediate needs of the displaced Palestinians. Its purpose was intended to be temporary alleviation of the refugees’ immediate problems, until an acceptable solution was found. But as the Arab states continued to wage failed offensives against Israel, often using the refugees as a bargaining chip, the solution did not get any closer, and the UNRWA mandate kept being renewed.
In 1949, the UNRWA served the needs of 750,000 people. In 2018, some 5 million persons are eligible for UNRWA services, because the organization adopted the stance that refugee status was something that could be passed from generation to generation.
This position applies exclusively to Palestinians, as UNHCR, the UN’s body that deals with the world’s remaining 17.2 million refugees under its auspices, sees that the cessation of this status comes with some form of permanent settlement. Had the UNRWA followed the UNHCR definition, the number of Palestinian refugees in 2018 would be approximately 30,000.
The perpetuated interim status of Palestinian refugees and their descendants is further aggravated by Palestinian and Israeli leadership’s non-negotiable position on the issue. Palestinians insist on the right of return for 5 million people, and rejected an Israeli 2000 offer for the return of 100,000 refugees, which included funds for the remaining refugees’ resettlement and absorption into Palestinian territories and third-party countries, as well as compensation for lost property.
Israel maintains its position that accepting 5 million Palestinians into the boundaries of the 1967 Jewish state would effectively turn Jews into a minority in Israel.
Who needs UNRWA?
In Gaza Strip, which has been under land, air and naval blockade by Israel and Egypt for over a decade, the UNRWA ensures many Palestinians’ daily survival.
“My mom, my father, my brother are all diabetics. Insulin is very expensive in Gaza, and they don’t have the money to buy it. UNRWA provides it to them,” Raed al-Atamneh, a driver who lives in Beit Hanun told Jerusalem Post.
Gaza has been blocked and isolated ever since hardline Islamist group Hamas took over the strip, ousting members of the rival West Bank-ruling party Fatah. Palestinians in the enclave have been living on the verge of humanitarian disaster, and their situation has steadily worsened as Hamas waged conflicts with Israel and deepened the rift with Fatah. The reconciliation process between the old enemies started in autumn, and proved to be rocky and slower than Gazans had hoped.
- Gaza Electricity Cuts – Political Standoff at the Expense of Palestinians
- Fatah and Hamas — Desperation Leading to Palestinian Political Reconciliation
Yet hardly all 5 million of UNRWA’s registered refugees live on the verge of humanitarian disaster like their brethren in the Strip — in some places, especially in Jordan, refugees who are still entitled to welfare are people with Jordanian citizenship, jobs, regular income and housing with running water, electricity and all the basic commodities.
Other countries, like Syria and Lebanon, despite paying lip service to the plight of Palestinian people, have done nothing to ease their situation, often insisting on UNRWA’s humanitarian program both as a political statement and as a way to push aside dealing with the refugees within their own borders.
But as the bloated welfare system of UNRWA has been turning obsolete, the organization has slowly set its sights on new goals, transforming in time into an extremely politicized entity.
UNRWA’s Extracurricular Activities
As the agency assumed its new mission, dealing with Palestinian political, human and humanitarian rights, it inadvertently and, finally, paradoxically, started to fuel the vicious cycle of Palestinian plight.
The perpetuum mobile starts with the youngest generations, whose education in UNRWA-funded schools is marred by historical and political narratives from controversial textbooks, taught by teachers who routinely praise and celebrate terrorists as “martyrs.” While one could shrug this off under the idea that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” it is a bit harder to rationalize the conduct of some agency employees and teachers in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Jordan.
Over the course of 2016 and 2017, many of them have been caught openly glorifying Adolf Hitler, peddling Holocaust denial propaganda, or spreading classical anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories.
The circle continues with armed resistance, for which UNRWA schools have been a source of logistical support on more than one occasion.
From 1975 to 1982, the agency’s Siblin Vocational Training Center outside Sidon, Lebanon, was occasionally used by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) for retooling and storing weapons and housing PLO personnel and equipment. UNRWA leadership chose not to go public with this information, relying on PLO officials’ private assurances that these actions would halt.
But the practice is alive and kicking decades later — in 2014 alone, stockpiles of Hamas rockets and weapons were found in three of the UNRWA’s Gaza schools.
“We condemn the group or groups who endangered civilians by placing these munitions in our school,” UNRWA Spokesperson, Chris Gunness said after the discovery, although he refrained from publicizing the findings on social networks and the agency’s official website. “This is yet another flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises. We call on all the warring parties to respect the inviolability of UN property.”
Furthermore, the independent UN inquiry in 2015 found that “in at least two cases Hamas ‘probably’ fired rockets at Israel from UNRWA facilities during the summer war in 2014 between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
In June 2017, the UNRWA found “part of a tunnel that passes under two adjacent agency schools in the Maghazi camp” during construction work. A few months later, another tunnel was discovered under a boys’ school. These tunnels are part of a greater network of tunnels built by Hamas, used for smuggling goods and weapons. Some of them pass into Israeli territory and have been used to launch missile attacks.
UNRWA’s relatively meek and neutral reaction to these transgressions, where blame is always watered down, split into pieces and directed at an unnamed entity, however, seems to be reserved for the Palestinians.
“In a typical example, Palestinians in Gaza launch a terrorist attack against Israelis — often a rocket strike on civilian targets, a war crime. This leads to an IDF attack on the terrorists, during which Palestinian civilians (among whom the terrorists place themselves) are killed or injured. UNRWA then lodges a protest condemning ‘Israel’s disproportionate, indiscriminate and excessive use of force, as well as the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel,’ naming the aggressors only as an afterthought. If, however, there is no Israeli military response, the Palestinian terrorism normally passes without UNRWA comment,” former UNRWA legal advisor James G. Lindsay wrote in his report in 2009.
Lindsay went on to criticize the agency’s posturing during Hamas’ 2007 coup in Gaza, when the hardline Islamists ousted Fatah from the Strip in a violent crackdown. “The commissioner-general attributed the “internal conflict” not to Hamas’s violent, totalitarian nature or its refusal to meet the Quartet’s conditions, but rather to the West’s “imposition of comprehensive international sanctions on the Palestinian Authority,” he wrote, adding that “propensity to echo Hamas views extends to other issues as well.”
How is this possible?
UNRWA employees’ lack of impartiality is, in fact, perfectly logical, if one takes into account that most of its staff are local people, mainly Palestinians, rather than foreign workers and observers. While UNHCR, in charge of the rest of the worlds’ refugees, employs 5,000 people, UNRWA employs a staggering 30,000 people, making it the largest employer in Gaza and West Bank.
Solving the refugee problem, or scaling it down to its actual extent, would single-handedly destroy what little of economy the Palestinian territories have, so perpetuating the problem pays off both for employees and Palestinian leadership buying their constituents’ good will.
The perfect way to perpetuate the problem is to stick to outdated formulas and emotional appeals, considering them non-negotiable. “The issue is so emotive because, in many ways, Palestinian identity itself is embodied in the collective belief in a ‘right of return’ to ‘Palestine.’ Along with the belief that resistance to Israel is permanent and holy, Palestinian identity is largely based on the idea that the Palestinians are, individually and communally, refugees; that they have been made so by Israel; and that the United Nations should support these refugees until they can return to what is now Israel,” wrote Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East Asaf Romirowsky in 2014.
But this narrative and the unique phenomenon of UNRWA intertwine to create the greatest problem of the Palestinian collective — a toxic lack of accountability, constantly perpetuated by Western leaders’ low expectations. In this narrative, Israel is an omnipotent dark force that can do no good, while Palestinians are merely passive, innocent victims whose decisions and actions are never seen or judged as their own.
This narrative refuses to take note of basic facts regarding the connection of Jewish people to the land of Israel, a discussion that seems irrational to the Western eyes, but carries great weight in the Middle East. This narrative refuses to discuss the fact that the war resulting in Nakba, the Palestinian exodus, was sparked by Arab leaders’ greed and Palestinian leaders’ refusal of a two-state solution.
In this echo chamber, it is unimaginable to suggest that the refugees’ plight could have been resolved a long time ago, and that it has been perpetuated by the very same Arab leaders’ and Palestinians’ “all or nothing” approach. Ultimately, this situation gives Israel a perfect excuse to continue occupation of the West Bank and furthermore, disregard the United Nations as an irrelevant, biased broker.
What Happens Next?
In the wake of Trump’s decision to withhold funds for the agency, PA president Mahmoud Abbas called on other countries to fill in the financial gap. Belgium was among those who answered the call, with an immediate disbursement of $23 million, an allocation for three years.
Abbas went on to dig the grave for Ramallah’s relationship with Washington and Jerusalem deeper, holding a speech last Sunday in which he presented his conspiratory alt-fact view of regional history — echoing the lessons that can be heard in UNRWA classrooms.
But as the political fallout deepens and the Israeli right-wing government is rubbing its hands, enjoying the confirmation that Abbas’ acceptance of the Jewish state’s existence was mere posturing rather than a true partnership towards peace, few people seem to wonder what comes next.
Salah Ajarmeh, a 44-year-old refugee living in Aida camp, told Al Jazeera that “if the services stop, there will be a revolution. Palestinian uprisings began in the refugee camps in Jordan and Syria, and this will happen again,” he said.
And he isn’t wrong.
“I’m not implying that there isn’t a need for a review of UNRWA’s function and mandate, but in the current situation, if you sever the assistance, you are leaving hundreds of thousands of people without basic needs,” Lt.-Col. (res.) Peter Lerner, a former IDF spokesman said when the news came out early January.
“That could potentially lead to more violence and aggravate the situation in the refugee camps that are prone for more violence anyway. Making their situation more dire without any solution is bad for Israel’s security.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also stopped short of supporting sharp cuts.
“I made a simple suggestion that the funds for UNRWA should be gradually transferred to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with clear criteria for supporting real refugees, rather than fictitious refugees, which is what is happening today under UNRWA,” he said earlier.
Palestinian leadership, on the other hand, is in a precarious position — they deepened the rift with Washington over Trump’s Jerusalem move that is now slowly unraveling itself for what it is — a vague and symbolic move that just wasn’t worth the hassle. It created a lot of noise, but left Palestinians worse off and more aware of the fact that their negotiating options are scarce.
- Jerusalem and Saying the Unspeakable – It Is Great Expectations, Not Trump, Plaguing the Peace Process
No matter how many European or Arab countries chip in to fill in the gap left by withheld U.S. aid, Washington still remains the largest and most important donor to the PA. But at the same time, Trump’s administration has openly positioned itself not only as a supporter of Israel, but a supporter of Netanyahu’s government.
Trump has been rather vague and ambiguous regarding the already-established Palestinian national aspirations, emboldening elements within the Israeli ruling coalition that openly advocate for a one-state solution without equal rights for Palestinians. U.S. envoy David Friedman even took liberties to judge the sensitive question of settlements in the Palestinian territories — in Israel’s favor — while the president’s aide Jared Kushner also contributed financially to disputed settlements.
Furthermore, Israeli media reported that Ramallah officials were introduced to the outlined U.S. peace plan, which allegedly prompted Abbas’ aforementioned enraged speech. The reported peace plan looked more like an Israeli wishlist, and less like a comprehensive strategy.
Internal Palestinian affairs are also in a rather sensitive phase — political reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah seems to be stuck, and Mahmoud Abbas’ old age is looming over his quest for a palpable legacy. What happens if too many factors in this story decide that, since they have nothing to lose, they might as well let refugee camps hard hit by aid cuts plunge into violence? Or what happens if Abbas is gone, and his successor is chosen in the current political climate? Nobody seems to think about that.
If the American plan is to break the vicious cycle of pandering to Palestinian pipe dreams and lack of accountability, the Jerusalem move and pressuring the UNRWA seem like good tactics, but they are part of a failed strategy because Trump’s administration is now pandering to the Israeli right wing’s pipe dreams of a one-state solution or regional recognition without a peace process, leaving Palestinians with all stick and no carrot.
After all, if Abbas has never been an honest peace partner, neither has Netanyahu — he just needed a better excuse than his Palestinian counterpart. Just as the UNRWA thrives on the problems it is supposed to solve, so do these two leaders.
Any hopeful peace broker should be aware of that.