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Don't Be Scared of Biden's Commitment to Palestinian Refugees

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Palestinian women take part in a protest against the cuts in food aid distribution, outside the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City last month
Palestinian women at a protest against cuts in food aid distribution, outside the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City last monthCredit: MOHAMMED ABED - AFP

Last week, the Biden administration announced it would restore humanitarian aid to Palestinians, including the U.S.'s annual contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which serves Palestinian refugees in several areas  including education, health, and economic development.

For those observers accustomed to little change, or to political theater suppressing the need to offer policy changes of substance, this decision merely represented a repivot to the pre-Trump status quo. A pro-Israel administration returning to a wiser, more modest pro-Israel posture.

There is some truth in this interpretation, but I would counter that returning to the pre-Trump status quo is a more active, and thus daring, step than simply continuing an inherited policy, which would have been how a Hillary Clinton administration in 2017 would have played out.

Donald Trump fulfilled some of the most fantastical dreams of the right-wing pro-Israel camp, and the Biden administration is beginning to walk them back. Taking away a dream being fulfilled is a completely different matter than denying it from the start. 

Last week’s announcement amounted to a reversal of the Trump administration’s full-scale adoption of the Israeli position on the Palestinian refugee problem, that considers it a threat to Israel’s existence, rather than an issue to be resolved to whatever extent is possible in a negotiated settlement. 

A Palestinian worker prepares bags of food supplies at an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at the Beach refugee camp in Gaza City this monthCredit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

In cutting its contributions to UNRWA by 100 percent, the Trump White House made clear it was intervening in support of Israel’s conceptual objections to the agency, including how it chooses to determine who is and is not a refugee. Operational reforms, no matter how extensive, would not satisfy these demands.

This was an unprecedented coup for Israel. No previous American administration had ever sought to intervene on the question of whether Palestinian refugeedom was legitimate.

So it is without much surprise that Israel has reacted noisily and negatively to the new administration’s restoring of aid to UNRWA, with Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to both the United States and the UN, pointedly denouncing UNRWA as "an anti-Semitic agency that incites against Israel and uses a twisted definition of who is a ‘refugee.’"  

The issue was not with problematic features of UNRWA’s operation, of which there are many, but with the existence of UNRWA itself.

It is quite telling that in the conclusion of their popular polemic "The War of Return," a book that has been enthusiastically received by American conservatives, the authors Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf specifically warn against any attempt to reform UNRWA, especially warning of the danger of successful reform, because that would, in their view, prolong an artificial problem.

It is clear the new administration does not embrace this view in the slightest. If the Biden team wanted to sell its new policy toward Palestinians as one based only in realpolitik, the need for a stable Palestinian polity that can attend to the needs of millions in refugee camps, it could have expressed its reluctance and insisted it was working with Israel to reach some sort of modus vivendi with the agency.

Perhaps that was the administration’s preference, but Ambassador Erdan’s statement made clear that Israel saw the Trump approach as essentially the right one and would endorse nothing less. 

But instead of telegraphing reticence, the Biden team has highlighted support for UNRWA as a centerpiece of its efforts to reestablish relations with the Palestinians.

As a senior State Department official told analyst Hussein Ibish, writing in the UAE-based The National newspaper, "[T]he administration sees this as a renewed commitment to the U.S. relationship with the Palestinian people, which is why the funding is not only aimed towards the West Bank and Gaza but for UNRWA, an important institution that provides services to the Palestinian people writ large."

It would be mistaken to see the slow but steady reversal of Trump’s policies as the beginning of a new, ambitious effort to achieve, at last, an end to the conflict, but there can be no doubt that a mercifully brief of period of intense American antagonism toward the Palestinians is ending – especially on the refugee issue.

Palestinian children walk past paintings depicting the 1948 'Naqba' or catastrophe, and the UNRWA site in the Fawwar Palestinian refugee camp, near Hebron, on September 2, 2018Credit: AFP

The Biden administration no doubt sympathizes with the Israeli position on the practical issue of the right of return, but it unambiguously does not share the view that Palestinian refugees are somehow not actually refugees.

The Zionist Left, and more broadly the camp within Israeli society that rejects the Greater Israel ideology and attaches some urgency to the cause of extricating the Jewish state from the quagmire in the occupied territories, should welcome this development. The same is true for diaspora Jews who stand in solidarity with anti-occupation Israelis.

There are at least two crucial reasons to move beyond seeing Palestinian refugees primarily as a threat to Israel.

The first is a commitment to basic empathy. Palestinian refugees, despite how their plight has been exploited in the past, are people whose lives and desires have been documented for generations.

Their desire to return to their homes, however unfeasible, is not centered on the second order effect it would have on Israel’s demographic balance. That desire is indifferent to it, just as the desire of Israeli settlers to live in the West Bank is indifferent to the implications for the area’s Palestinian inhabitants. Indifference can lead to cruelty, but it requires tragic solipsism to believe these visceral attachments to the land only exist insofar as they can stick it to your side. 

Sanitizing a house in al-Fari'ah refugee camp, part of a coronavirus prevention campaign by UNRWA and the Popular Committee. March 31, 2020.Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS

Finally, the hyping up of the "threat" posed by refugees – usually by the pro-Israel right – serves the agendas of extremists on both sides, who view compromise as a threat, and in particular for those Palestinians who are convinced that the entire Zionist 'project' can still be dismantled.

The truth is: Palestinian refugees themselves do not pose an existential threat to Israel. In the era of increasing recognition of Israel’s right to exist in the region, the prospect of the Jewish state being forced to admit these refugees against its will is vanishingly small. There is little sense in projecting the fear of Palestinian refugees who simply won't ever be arriving to overwhelm sovereign Israel.

I am not optimistic there will ever be a satisfactory solution to the refugee problem as part of any final status agreement. In the end, I believe a successful negotiation must involve jettisoning the "nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to" formula that has condemned negotiations over decades to consistent failure in Israel and Palestine. That would open up the possibility of finding common ground on specific issues while accepting others will, for a longer period, if not indefinitely, remain unresolved.

What would this mean for the refugee issue? Even if we assume that Palestinians hold an almost immutable maximalist position on refugees and their return (and I don’t), that does not justify permanent Israeli rule over them. Ending the occupation by the establishment of a Palestinian state should not be hostage to a resolution of the refugee issue.

In the meantime, Palestinian refugees should not suffer gratuitous punishment; nor should their ordeal be reduced to what it would mean, in some alternative universe, if Israel allowed them to return. They are a fact that cannot be made to disappear. It is welcome news that America is once again governed by people who understand this.

Abe Silberstein is a writer and commentator on Israel and U.S.-Israel relations. Twitter: @abesilbe

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