The Trump administration’s decision to end funding for the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, fulfilled a long-standing goal of Israel and its American supporters. For years, Israel has sought to resolve the refugee crisis through policies aimed at normalizing Palestinian exile and denying Palestinian rights. These tactics have ranged from deflecting its responsibility for the problem to challenging the status of Palestinian refugees under international law. Taking aim at UNRWA has long been a central part of Israel’s arsenal, but now it has the Trump administration, which also announced this week that it will close the de facto Palestinian embassy in Washington.
When Israel submitted its first bid to become a member of the United Nations in 1948, the Security Council refused its application citing, among other things, its responsibility to resolve the newly created refugee crisis. Approximately 750,000 Palestinians fled Palestine or were expelled by Zionist militias and the Israeli army during hostilities between December 1947 and March 1949. Their removal achieved the objective of establishing a decisive Jewish majority state in Mandatory Palestine, where Jews had constituted about thirty percent of the population.
Since its establishment, Israel has equated the return of Palestinian refugees with its destruction. Not because of capacity or security, but because the return of Palestinians would undermine a myth of uninterrupted Jewish presence in Palestine and, more importantly, a Jewish demographic majority achieved through ethnic cleansing and maintained through racist bureaucracy.
In 1949, Israel passed a law permitting Jews from anywhere in the world—with no previous connection to the land—to “return” and acquire full citizenship upon entry. It simultaneously established a shoot-to-kill policy of any Palestinians who attempted to return to their homes and imposed martial law on the approximate 160,000 Palestinians who remained within the state to facilitate their forcible transfer in the fortuitous chance that war erupted again.
In spite of this record, in 1949, the United Nations accepted Israel’s second bid for membership, hopeful that the state would relent, and established UNRWA to provide for Palestinian refugees’ basic humanitarian needs. In 1951, when the international community established a refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it refused to fold UNRWA into it for the sake of maintaining a heightened political imperative on resolving the question of Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian refugees, now totaling nearly six million, are entering their seventh decade of statelessness and exile, and constitute the world’s longest-lasting refugee situation. The State Department once took note of Israel’s “institutional” discrimination of its Palestinian minority. In July, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed a Nation State Law declaring Israel a state for Jewish people—not merely citizens—establishing the de jure second-class status of its Palestinian Muslim and Christian citizens. Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer hailed the law as a model of sovereignty for the future of Europeans. As in 1948, Israel continues to frame the return of Palestinian refugees as an existential threat.
The influx of other refugees from places like Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, and Yemen has exacerbated the donor fatigue afflicting UNRWA. In 2009, the agency was short 150 million dollars and in 2013 it was sixty-nine million dollars below its financial need. The US cuts threaten access to education in Gaza, where refugees constitute nearly three-fourths of the population, as well the delivery of vital services to 418,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria.
UNRWA has nevertheless continued to fulfill its mandate. It serves more than 170 schools, nearly 150 health facilities and dozens of women’s centers for 5.4 million refugees across the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The World Bank regards it as a “global public good” citing its exemplary education system, with students who outperform some of their peers in the region.
Israel argues that UNRWA’s definition of refugees, which includes descendants, inflates the number of actual refugees, but the UNHCR applies the same definition of a refugee. Israel also suggests that but for UNRWA’s humanitarian provisions, Palestinians would be forced to relinquish their claims for return. Essentially, if Palestinian refugees were even more destitute than they already are, they would accept whatever they are offered.
The Trump administration’s willingness to target UNRWA singles out Palestinian refugees and holds them hostage for the sake of imposing a solution upon them. It is part of a series of similar decisions, like the embassy move to Jerusalem this year, dropping the word “occupied” to Palestinian territories in its reports and the closure of the PLO diplomatic mission. They all pave the path for Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” currently being drafted by Jared Kushner and other administration officials with close ties to the Israeli right. At such a violent and dehumanizing cost, it is hardly a deal of any century. It is duress on a community in humanitarian need with a clear message: submit or starve.
These developments must compel the international community to support UNRWA to prevent a humanitarian collapse and, just as significantly, to impose sanctions on Israel’s self-described apartheid regime until it finally ends its denial of Palestinian freedom.
The United Nations gave Israel the benefit of the doubt in 1949. The ensuing seven decades have afforded its members the benefit of hindsight. Today, the writing on the wall is incontrovertibly plain, and there is no excuse for inaction.
[This article was published first on the Washington Post.]