Palestinian refugee rights have all but been cast aside at Israel’s insistence, as if seeking to return to their homes is a crime. But now even the sticking plaster that is the UN agency that is responsible for them is under serious threat.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) faces the most severe funding crisis in its 70-year history, one that will have a devastating impact on these refugees, but will also send out a grim warning to others.
This arises because UNRWA’s leading donor, the US, decided to punish the Palestinian leadership for daring to condemn President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The story of the cuts in US funding started with a question from an anti-Palestinian, anti-UNRWA journalist to Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador at the UN. Asked if the US would cut funding to UNRWA, she replied: “The President has basically said he doesn’t want to give any additional funding, or stop funding, until the Palestinians agree to come back to the negotiation table… As of now, they’re not coming to the table, but they ask for aid. We’re not giving the aid. We’re going to make sure that they come to the table.”
President Trump issued two supportive tweets on Jan. 2. He wrote: “With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
This precipitated a massive debate in the White House itself. Haley sought a complete cessation of funding and only the interventions of key players such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prevented this. Trump wavered between the two sides.
This shocked UNRWA. When Commissioner General Pierre Kraehenbuehl visited the US in November, the organization was widely praised at the White House, including by Jason Greenblatt, the president’s envoy, for its reforms and performance.
The US administration was desperate to make the Palestinian leadership pay, and UNRWA was brought up at the wrong place and at the wrong time. It has no role in pushing forward peace talks and the only victims will be stateless refugees.
More effective use of aid is a must, but cutting assistance to those most in need for political reasons and with a blithe disregard to international obligations heralds not just an isolationist policy but an uncaring one too.
Another segment of the anti-Palestinian crowd argues that UNRWA’s mandate should be terminated; a position also put forward by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their fond hope is that, if Palestinian refugees were to be put under the mandate of the UNHCR instead of UNRWA, this would annul the Palestinian right of return. Israeli apologists also believe, quite wrongly, that under the UNHCR refugee rights would not be passed on to subsequent generations, as happens with Palestinian refugees. Both agencies believe that the voluntary return of refugees to their country of origin is best practise and a long-term solution.
To bash the UN and the Palestinians in one go excites the loyal Trump partisans and neatly reinforces the president’s reputation as someone on a collision course with the international establishment. Yet the underlying rationale may be different.
President Trump will jump at any opportunity to cut overseas funding as an article of faith. It is all about the “America first” agenda. For him and his supporter base, dollars spent abroad are wasted, and they have little desire to remain the world’s leading overseas aid funder. Trump has proposed cutting US foreign aid by more than 30 percent, including 20 percent cuts to aid to refugees. However, as ever, there is no discussion about cutting the $3 billion annual aid to Israel — a first-world economy that certainly does not need it. His attitude to peace in the Middle East was summed up in one tweet in December: “After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!”
This is stunningly counterproductive. UNRWA provides for 80 percent of Gaza’s population. It has a proud record of delivering first-class health and education services, including teaching children about international law and human rights. In addition, these cuts undermine a major Trump ambition of combatting extremism. What will happen to the 500,000 Palestinian children in the 677 UNRWA schools if funding disappears? In Gaza, refugee children may well be taught at Hamas-run schools, surely not something the US would wish to see. Extremists will find plenty of raw recruits.
More effective use of aid is a must, but cutting assistance to those most in need for political reasons and with a blithe disregard to international obligations heralds not just an isolationist US administration but an uncaring one too. It is such decisions that sadly diminish and undercut the US reputation on the world stage.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter:@Doylech