On 31 August 2018, the Trump Administration announced it was terminating its funding commitment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). As part of the initial media frenzy, I was invited to discuss the decision on a mainstream US media network, scheduled for the morning of Monday 4 September. As media cycles go, the network deemed the defunding decision to not be newsworthy, found something “more sexy,” and canceled the segment. Below are some talking points that I would have introduced into the segment.
The UN General Assembly created the UNRWA in 1949, and the General Assembly has re-approved its mission every three years. The original mandate sought to provide education, healthcare, and other services to complement the political mandate of its sister agency, the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), which was established to find a durable solution for Palestinian refugees. Though it was not dissolved, the UNCCP reached a political deadlock in 1951 and fell into abeyance. The General Assembly has since incrementally expanded UNRWA’s mandate in order to fill this protection gap. UNRWA’s mandate exists in five areas (West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon) where it serves approximately 5.4 million registered refugees, operates seven hundred schools, and employs thirty thousand employees.
The US financial contribution to UNRWA has historically been one-fourth of the agency's annual budget (364 million dollars of a one billion dollars). In 2017, the Trump Administration reduced that contribution down to sixty million dollars (i.e., to approximately sixteen percent of its previous commitment). This most recent decision has now indefinitely reduced the US contribution to zero. Whether sixty million dollars or 360 million dollars, the US contribution to UNRWA has always been peanuts in light of US military aid to Israel, which is nearly four billion dollars annually. This is to say nothing of its economic aid to Israel, or of the US military spending elsewhere—most notably Iraq, where spending since 2003 is approaching two trillion dollars with no sight of a full withdrawal.
The US State Department explained the recent decision by claiming that UNRWA’s business operation is “irredeemably flawed.” Yet such justification makes little sense in light of fact that the United States renewed its annual support for UNRWA in December 2017 and praised the agency for its management. Furthermore, the World Bank—for whatever its worth—described UNRWA as “a global public good” for running one of the most effective school systems in the region.
One should read the Trump Administration’s decision to terminate funding for UNRWA on two levels. First, UNRWA and everything it does reflects a global mandate. The US withdrawal of its commitment to UNRWA is thus another instance of the Trump Administration’s broader disinvestment from multilateral institutional arrangements, including those at the global level.
Second, the decision to terminate financial support to UNRWA is yet another attempt to resolve by political fiat the final status issue of Palestinian refugees. One of the next steps in this process is probably an attempt to change the definition of a Palestinian refugee to exclude descendants, therefore reducing the registered refugee population from nearly six million to about fifty thousand. The United States and Israel cannot do this unilaterally. More significantly, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the other UN refugee agency, applies the same definition for refugee status (i.e., descendants of refugees born in exile have refugee status). This is reflected in Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan, and Somalia. Reducing the financial capacities of UNRWA services is one way the Trump Administration is hoping to force a redefinition of what constitutes Palestinian refugees and thus determine the issue.
It is this latter dynamic that must be central to our understanding. The United States and Israel want to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue, not by allowing refugees to return, but by changing the legal definition so that they cease to exist. This strategy is racist and in keeping with longstanding US support for Israel’s settler colonial project and its inherent feature of Palestinian displacement. Yet it is also non-sensical vis-a-vis the UNHCR definition: imagine a policy that wanted to target immigrants from Mexico by changing Medicare standards to only be available to citizens of Mexican descent above the age of eighty, rather than sixty-five which applies to all other seniors, and then blaming them for being too old to justify the change.
The Trump Administration has actually tried to blame UNRWA for the long-standing nature of the Palestinian refugee crisis, despite their being a humanitarian agency. The inability to resolve this crisis is a political failure that primarily reflects Israel’s intransigent refusal to allow refugees to return in order to maintain a demographic majority. Israel has long publicly predicated the return of refugees on establishing permanent peace with Arab states. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, however, literally rejected peace overtures from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in 1949 stating that cost of return by Palestinian refugee is not worth the peace offered.
- For more on the creation of Palestinian refugees and UNRWA, read this special issue of Refugee Studies Quarterly edited by Lex Takkenberg, https://academic.oup.com/rsq/article/28/2-3/253/1584817
- For more on international law and Palestinian refugees, here is one useful article on sources of the Palestinian Right of Return beyond Resolution 194: http://cilj.co.uk/…/bases-for-the-palestinian-refugees-rig…/
- For more on what the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization should be doing to cut its debilitating dependency on US aid, here are four things Alaa Adel Tartir recommends: https://www.middleeasteye.net/…/how-palestinians-should-res…