Last month, President Donald Trump granted a cherished wish of American and Israeli hardliners, taking Jerusalem—an issue that the Oslo Agreement stipulated would be resolved only in permanent status negotiations—“off the table.” Now, only weeks later, American and Israeli hardliners are again trembling with anticipation at the possibility that Trump will fulfill another long-held desire: destroying or crippling the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency that supports Palestine refugees across the Middle East.
Many are now arguing, correctly, that undermining UNRWA will threaten an already fragile status quo in the West Bank and Gaza (not to mention Jordan and Lebanon), and thus would be bad for Israel and would have serious humanitarian implications for Palestinians. For these and other reasons, some suggest that the attack on Palestinian aid is a tactical “misstep” by the Trump Administration. These arguments miss the point: with this new approach to UNRWA, undermining the status quo is a feature, not a bug.
The Trump Administration has tied its attack on UNRWA to UN and Palestinian reactions to Trump’s Jerusalem policy shift. Taking to Twitter this week, Trump railed about Palestinian ingratitude for U.S. funding (which is a tiny fraction of what the U.S. provides Israel). U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that funding would be suspended until the Palestinians “return to the negotiating table” – suggesting a new peace framework predicated on blackmailing the Palestinians into accepting Israeli and American diktats.
In reality, the threat to de-fund UNRWA has nothing to do with any of those things, except in an opportunistic sense. What it is really about is further shattering the terms of reference established by the Oslo Agreement and removing from the negotiating agenda another sensitive and explosive permanent status issue. In short, this attack is about taking Palestinian refugees, like Jerusalem, “off the table” - consistent with the view articulated by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, writing in October 2016, when he referred to Palestinian “so-called ‘refugees.’”
The effort to erase Palestinian refugees by gutting UNRWA is nothing new. Dating to the late 1990s, reactionary voices in Israel and the United States (for examples, see the Gatestone Institute and Middle East Forum)—often joined by fellow travelers in Congress—have been making the case that the “solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue should be found not through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but through unilateral action by the United States to re-define Palestinian refugees out of existence.
As I observed previously, this approach won’t work. Palestinians’ self-identification as refugees is grounded in their own experiences, history, and narrative, not permission from UNRWA or anyone else. Dissolving UNRWA or compelling the UN to re-define millions of Palestinians to no longer technically qualify as refugees won’t change that self-definition an iota. Moreover, like Trump’s Jerusalem move, doing so not only won't make reaching a peace agreement easier in the future, it will make it harder, dictating new terms of reference that are wholly disconnected from the actual issues at the heart of the conflict and that actively obstruct any chance for a resolution.
What of the argument, made sincerely by some and patently insincerely by others, that for the sake of both Palestinian refugees and peace, it would be better to dissolve UNRWA and treat Palestinian refugees like refugees from any other conflict, under the authority of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR)?
Answering this question is a matter of reviewing the options available to UNHCR to resolve the plight of refugees, as helpfully laid out in detail by former UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness in a 2011 interview. Briefly, UNHCR’s preferred option is returning refugees to their home countries. This option is, of course, wholly off the table for Palestinians, because Israel won’t permit it. UNHCR’s second option is settling refugees where they are currently located. This option, too, is off the table for Palestinians, as key host countries like Jordan and Lebanon have political and demographic considerations of their own which powerfully mitigate against formally or permanently absorbing Palestinian refugees. It’s also worth remembering that the West Bank and Gaza, where many Palestinian refugees are located, have been under Israeli occupation for 50 years, and absent a two-state agreement there is no avenue for turning these refugees, or any residents of the West Bank and Gaza, into citizens. UNHCR’s third option is voluntary resettlement of refugees in third countries. This option, too, is not a solution, as Palestinian refugees cannot be forced to re-settle.
What about the argument that UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem by conferring refugee status on descendants of those who lost homes in 1948 and 1967? The resounding answer can be found in today’s news, which reports that 50,000 Rohingya babies are expected to be born in refugee camps this year. All of these babies will have refugee status under UNHCR.
One final note: the political agenda inherent in the efforts to undermine UNRWA is highlighted by the case of another set of self-identified Middle East refugees: Jews who fled or were kicked out of Arab countries during the 20th century, mainly in connection with the birth of the state of Israel. Many of these individuals and their descendants—despite being citizens of Israel (which is, in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “the nation-state of one people, the Jewish people, and no other”), the U.S. or various other countries—today still identify as refugees. Like Palestinians who lost homes in what is today Israel, these Jews don’t rely on the UN to give them permission to do so, or to authorize their claims of dispossession (which, like Palestinian claims, are well-documented) or to approve their right to demand recognition and compensation.
While anti-peace hardliners in the U.S and Israel have constantly attacked Palestinian refugees—as is happening again today—many, including in Congress, have embraced the cause of Jews from Arab lands. Ironically, this embrace has for the most part had nothing to do with bringing justice to Jews from Arab lands; rather, like the attacks on UNRWA, it has been about exploiting them as a tool to—you guessed it—take Palestinian refugees off the table.