President Trump is launching an attack against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA): in early January, he announced that the U.S. government will transfer only half of its pledged payment ($60 million) to the humanitarian organization, leaving an extra $65 million “for further consideration”. Aggravating the situation, Trump is reportedly considering dropping the organization’s definition of “refugee” to no longer denote the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled in 1948 and 1967, as is currently the case. Until their repatriation or resettlement, these refugees will be eligible to use the services provided by UNRWA, and UNRWA will continue to be responsible for their welfare and education, not the governments of the states where they have been living for decades.
Due to this unique designation, UNRWA currently treats a whopping number 5 million people as refugees, even though there were only 750,000 refugees after the First Arab-Israeli War (counted in the early 1950s), and an additional 300,000 refugees after the Six-Day War in 1967. By changing the definition of refugeehood, Trump will remove the majority of Palestinians from the list of beneficiaries, thus revoking their special status and putting them in the same category as other refugees treated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The ultimate result will essentially be canceling UNRWA’s raison d’être as a separate entity from the UNHCR.
While Israel’s right-wing hardliners indulge in the thought of rolling back the conversation over the right of return, or even abolishing it altogether, proponents for the two-state solution in both Israel and the U.S. should be apprehensive about the repercussions this step will incur on a future peace process. In the Palestinian narrative of decades-long refugeehood , keeping the key to the old house in Jaffa or Haifa as a symbol for their imminent return to the land of their grandparents, will not change based on a political decision. On the contrary, it will probably exacerbate the anti-colonialist discourse and portray Israel and the U.S. as the powerful giants who try to rob the poor Palestinians from the little they have left – recognition of their grievance.
Furthermore, denying access to UNRWA’s services does not mean that the Arab states, where the refugee population resides, will finally agree to accommodate them and provide for their basic needs. Lebanon’s ethnic and religious schisms prevent it from granting citizenship to the Palestinian population without exacerbating domestic tensions. Hezbollah, which holds a seat at the decision making table based on a power sharing agreement reached after the bloody civil war, will use any infringement on Palestinian refugees’ rights to mobilize against Israel. More than acting on behalf of the Palestinians, a cause that legitimizes their existence, Hezbollah will hamper such resettlement to ensure that approximately 175,000 Sunnis won’t be able to influence the religious balance against their favor. This current number is surprisingly low in comparison to previous estimations – UNRWA has almost 500,000 registered refugees and the American University in Beirut estimated between 260,000 to 280,000 refugees. The high disparity between the figures brought here from a recent census, versus UNRWA’s numbers, suggests that UNRWA received funds far greater than needed to maintain its operations (which puts into question why it claims to be underfunded) and casts doubt on their registration process.
Two other countries that host Palestinian refugees outside the Palestinian Territories – Syria and Jordan – will also have difficulty accommodating resettlement. Syria, still in the throes of a destructive (but slowly ending) civil war, will be unable to agree to any situation that alleviates Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinian refugees. Indebted to Hezbollah and Iran for ongoing battlefield advances and having to rebuild a ruined country, and his leadership, Bashar al-Assad will not be able to make any step in this direction. Furthermore, Syria has a long tradition of rejecting Israel’s presence by condoning Palestinian resistance and hosting the leaders of Hamas and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Integrating refugees into Syria would mean acknowledging Israel’s permanent presence, something the regime would be loathe to do.
Jordan, however, is the only country that officially accepted most Palestinian refugees as full citizens and hosts approximately 2,200,000 Palestinians. A minority group of Palestinians who do not enjoy Jordanian citizenship are refugees who fled from Gaza in 1967 and tens of thousands of Palestinians who recently arrived to the refugee camps from Syria. Although Jordan officially resettled the Palestinian refugees by granting them full-fledged citizenship and equal rights, it can never admit that it accepts changes to the refugee definition or to UNRWA status. UNRWA’s financial contribution to welfare and education in the refugee camps in Jordan substantially reduces the country’s investment in those areas. With more than two million Syrian refugees in the country, Jordan’s economic status is precarious. Even if this impediment was resolved by a generous donation by the U.S. government, transferring the same amount directly to the Jordanian government, it will cause a political crisis and possibly imperil the kingdom since the Palestinians are a large and dominant minority group.
Many things need to be changed with UNRWA’s operations. First, The existence of an organization that provides aid to an ever-growing population without requesting steps towards independence is an unsustainable model. It relies purely on donations that are supposedly meant to relieve the suffering of the Palestinian refugee population, yet in most host areas, devastating conditions persist (despite UNRWA’s over billions of dollars worth of assistance). Essentially, UNRWA’s budget can’t keep up with the continued increase of refugees, all linked to wars that happened more than five decades ago. Furthermore, UNRWA’s facilities are operated by Palestinians who are refugees themselves, making UNRWA also the largest employer in the refugee communities. This economic dependence not only accounts for the services provided by UNRWA, but for its value to the Palestinian job market as well.
Second, UNRWA perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by indirectly denying Palestinian resettlement and subjecting new generations, who have never lived in former Mandatory Palestine, the dubious title of “refugee.” This title is both a blessing and a curse. While it means that the refugee will enjoy the fulfillment of his or her basic needs vis-a-vis UNRWA’s schools and health facilities, he or she will also have little socio-economic mobility. The children of refugees will most likely be refugees as a matter of necessity, not of choice, and so will their children.
Third, by employing a predominantly Palestinian workforce in UNRWA’s rank and file, there is little external inspection. Various NGO’s found alarming cases of textbooks that incite violence against Jews and Israelis, or teachers who incite Jihadist terrorist attacks and celebrate the Holocaust. During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s summer 2014 campaign against Hamas, Protective Edge, stocks of rockets were found in UNRWA’s schools. UNRWA is essentially a Palestinian operated organization that cares for Palestinians, using international funds and with little supervision on the ground.
However, despite its many flaws, before the U.S. decides to completely defund UNRWA and work through the UN to downsize it, Washington has to consider the repercussions and the alternatives. Eliminating UNRWA will create a large gap that will not be filled by the host countries. On the contrary, it will be used to radicalize Palestinians against the West, not only Israel. Indeed, religious extremism is also prone to fill that gap.
The U.S. should use its current leverage in the UN and as the largest contributor to UNRWA to push for reforms in the organization. Inserting more inspection methods, regulation, and accountability for both its use of funds and content can create a different atmosphere in the organization. Adding projects that assist small business owners or initiating professional training courses can also develop the refugees’ financial independence. It is also imperative to work from the other end to reduce the desirability of refugee status from the functional aspect, meaning, curtailing the benefits the status provides. Palestinian refugees might still refer to themselves as refugees because of the historical dimension, not because it gives them financial welfare. Although UNRWA underwent reforms from 2005 to 2012, these processes focused on improving its efficiency and effectiveness, not its modus operandi.
President Trump’s aggravation with UNRWA is understandable – it is an organization that grows exponentially yet has little to show for more than seventy years of operation. However, UNRWA is not a business, it doesn’t produce or sell anything. It is a humanitarian organization, one with major flaws in its mandate and strategy. Those need to be tended to and fixed, yet in a manner that does not cause more harm to the millions of people who are refugees by birth. The clock cannot be turned back, revoking refugee status will not eliminate the right of return nor will it salvage the peace process. If anything, moving blindly against UNRWA without offering an alternative solution will make the situation worse.