The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) looks to be facing the brunt of Donald Trump’s threat to cut aid to the Palestinians. The most obvious target for an aid cut if the intention is to force the Palestinian leadership back to talks with Israel, as US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has claimed, would be the Palestinian Authority. That Trump is targeting UNRWA instead tells us a lot about the vulnerability of Palestinian refugees, and Israel’s need to have the PA to do its bidding.
According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “…practical steps should be taken to change the situation in which UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem instead of resolving it.” Last June, he went further: “UNRWA… should be dismantled and its parts incorporated in other UN commissions.” Although Haaretz reports that “there might be Israeli support for transferring funds to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, even though the agency’s expertise is not in Gaza at all,” we should not be fooled into thinking that Netanyahu has the interests of Palestinian refugees at heart. Far from it.
When Israel joined the United Nations back in 1949, its membership was conditional upon it allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The Right to Return has been reaffirmed in UN resolutions repeatedly ever since. Israel, of course, has never allowed this to happen, fearing that it would change the “Jewish nature” of the state.
The only UN agency dedicated specifically to “Palestine refugees” is UNRWA, which was established in 1949. It continues to this day to provide essential services to the remaining original refugees and their descendants. This is what Netanyahu means when he speaks of the agency “perpetuating” the refugee problem, because those descendants are also classified as refugees and registered as such with the UN. His Zionist worldview prevents him from understanding that it is actually successive Israeli governments which have perpetuated the refugee problem by rejecting the Right of Return and keeping the Palestinians in refugee camps across the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Take away UNRWA, though, and you start to take away the refugee problem, not least because if they are shifted to the UNHCR, for example, they would become just like any other refugees, whereas their situation is unique.
Furthermore, the only UN agency with “Palestine” in its name would disappear. We should not underestimate the effect that this would have, as Zionists have long argued that “there was never a place called Palestine” and hate UNRWA for who it exists for as much as what it does for refugees. Force UNRWA to close down due a lack of adequate funding and one of Zionism’s founding myths will be strengthened.
Cutting aid to UNRWA would also place a huge burden on the host countries, as the pressure would be on for the governments of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to allocate some of their already scarce national resources to the refugees. Of course, this would also have to happen in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where the equivalent to a host country is the occupying state of Israel. It has in any case a legal obligation to provide for the people living under occupation, an obligation which it ignores. In fact, following Oslo, it managed to sidestep it altogether with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, which is funded by donor states to act as a branch of the Israeli security forces. This, of course, is why Trump hasn’t got funding for the PA in his sights; any weakening of the Ramallah-based authority would have a direct impact on Israel, and that would never do for the Zionists in Washington.
It could, however, be a very positive thing for the Palestinians in the long-term, because US aid, as Alaa Tartir has pointed out, comes with serious conditions: “It is time to reverse the ‘vetting process’; instead of USAID vetting the Palestinians, it is time for the Palestinians to do the necessary vetting to USAID and the other US bodies in the aid industry in Palestine.” At the moment, US aid helps to perpetuate an authority without real authority; a government that cannot govern independently; and a president who presides over, well, not over a state, let’s put it that way.
It is “misleading,” Tartir added, “to assume that aid and its benefits trickle down to ordinary Palestinian people.” Clearly, it doesn’t. If it did, UNRWA’s presence would only really be necessary in Palestine’s neighbours, not in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The bulk of US aid to the PA goes on security for the Israelis through the Palestinian Authority’s 70,000 security personnel. That’s right: 70,000. And when did we last see PA security officers protecting Palestinians against Israelis, especially the illegal and fully-armed Jewish settlers? We don’t, and won’t; their orders are to stand down and move away when Israeli soldiers and police are on the scene, as they always are when settlers are on the rampage. This is why Trump cannot target the PA and is turning his aid guns on a soft target by planning to cut humanitarian rather than political aid.
It seems scandalous to me that funding for UNRWA, apart from a small pot of core UN funds for its “international” staff, is entirely voluntary. UNRWA essentially provides the sort of services that a state would provide under normal circumstances. For an agency with such a vital task to have to get its begging bowl out every year simply in order to be able to do the job for which it was established is a stain on the conscience of the international community.
A large part of UNRWA’s annual expenditure goes on staff salaries. To the uninitiated, this looks very wrong; how can aid be spent in this way? The vast majority of the agency’s employees, however, are Palestinian refugees. The aid that UNRWA provides has a two-fold effect: it establishes and provides essential services, and pays members of the beneficiary community to run them. The aid money spent on salaries, therefore, is put into circulation within the refugee economy. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, this annoys the Israelis even more, because their aim is to keep the Palestinian economy entirely dependent on their own, something that the Paris Agreement of 1994 established to Israel’s benefit.
There is thus a lot more to Donald Trump’s aid cut threat than meets the eye. It is far more complicated than the Palestinians having to show some “respect” to America. In fact, it goes to the very root cause of the Palestinian refugee problem: Israel and its founding ideology of Zionism has always wanted as much of the land of Palestine as possible, with as few Palestinians on it as possible; allow Israel to steal more land with impunity, and its ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians will continue. That is why Netanyahu wants to get rid of UNRWA, so that the specificity of the “Palestine refugees” can be wiped off the international agenda and the Right to Return will be lost forever.
If the US goes ahead and withdraws its funding for UNRWA, other states have to step up to the mark and cover the deficit. Although America is its largest single donor, there are some notable states missing from the UNRWA donor list; that should be rectified without delay to minimise the effect of Trump’s spite and Nikki Haley’s petulance. All refugees have the legitimate right to return to their land, and the Palestinians cannot be the exception.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.