With Israel’s halfhearted blessing, the Trump administration has decided this week to end funding for the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), a move that could prove catastrophic for millions of Palestinian refugees.
The decision, which ends a decades-long U.S. support of the agency, has been widely denounced as a joint effort by the United States and Israel to exert pressure on the Palestinian leadership to accept Trump’s "deal of the century." Palestinians refer to it as a "death sentence" and downright blackmailing, "a flagrant assault" against the Palestinian people, and a collective punishment imposed on Palestinian refugees for political calculations.
By weakening UNRWA, both the Trump administration and the Israeli leadership seem to be under the perilous illusion that they could take the refugee question off the table. This is clearly a dangerous move, with far-reaching consequences for peace and stability in the region, especially in the vulnerable and poverty-stricken Gaza Strip, with its 1.3 million refugees.
The irony is that for many decades, Israel helped create, sustain and promote the UN agency.
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By supporting the founding of UNRWA, the early Israeli establishment hoped that the agency would help integrate the refugees in their host countries, ultimately weakening their demands for return to their homes inside Israel. It also believed that creating a special UN agency devoted to Palestinian refugees was a necessary step to relieve Israel of the moral and financial burden of the refugee crisis, which Israel had created.
Indeed, when UNRWA was founded in 1949, the refugee crisis was barely one year old. This was too short a time span for Israel to deny moral responsibility for the disaster.
Only a year before, in the mass expulsion that accompanied Israel’s founding, about 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and forced to flee their homes and become lifetime refugees. 200,000 of those uprooted flooded into the Gaza Strip, whose population tripled overnight. The rest made their way to the West Bank and the neighboring Arab countries of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
The crisis was so profound that on December 1, 1948, the United Nations set up a special agency to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees: The United Nations Relief for Palestinian Refugees (UNRPR.) Ten days later, on December 11, the UN General Assembly voted for Resolution 194, which called for reaching a final settlement to ensure the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes. (The vote has been reaffirmed by UNGA nearly every year ever since.)
The Resolution sent chills down Israel’s spine, and when one year later, on 8 December, UNRWA was created by a UN General Assembly Resolution to carry out direct relief and work programs for Palestinian refugees, Israel was among the leading countries that voted for the Resolution, along with the United States and the Arab countries.
In that period, Israeli leaders like Moshe Dayan were conceding the fact that injustice had been done to the Palestinian refugees, and that they were innocent victims of war and violence whose grievances must be addressed. They also realized that the refugee camps scattered along Israel’s borders would be a heavy burden on Israel’s future.
As a result, and under mounting international pressure, Israel was ready to discuss the question of compensation and repatriation, to share with Arab countries and the international community in the financial burden of the refugees, and even to allow reunions of refugees with their families inside Israel.
What’s more, Israel was willing to accept a considerable number of refugees as part of a US-led effort to alleviate the crisis. In 1949, the year UNRWA was founded, it agreed to admit up to 100,000 refugees into Israel. The same year, as part of a plan to annex the Gaza Strip to Israel, it agreed to absorb 150,000 refugees living in Gaza and grant them Israeli citizenship. At the same time, Israel continued to encourage the economic integration of refugees into the host Arab states, which was at the core of UNRWA’s mission.
And so, with a strong international mandate and funding, UNRWA began operations on 1 May 1950. The agency even operated within Israel until 1952, and it continued to enjoy Israel’s support long after that. In 1967, Israel asked UNRWA to continue its operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and routinely voiced its support for its humanitarian mission in the Arab host countries.
There was virtually no Israeli opposition when, in 1996, UNRWA moved its headquarters from Vienna to Gaza, where a quarter of the Palestinian refugees were then living.
For decades, UNRWA seemed to be fulfilling its perceived mission. Since its founding, the UN agency has served as the main international agency responsible for aiding Palestinian refugees. Today, it provides critical humanitarian assistance for over five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants throughout the Middle East.
This includes food security programs, health services and water and sanitation projects, along with educational services to over 525,000 UNRWA students in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. In the Gaza Strip alone, the agency provides humanitarian services to some 1.3 million refugees, out of a population of two million, living in its overcrowding and impoverished eight refugees camps.
The early Israeli establishment realized from early on that UNRWA was not created to solve the refugee crisis. If anything, it was solving Israel’s refugee crisis, ultimately easing its moral burden and financial implications.
While now and then Israeli leaders would go public and lash out at what they viewed as UNRWA’s anti-Israel bias, they were secretly supportive of it, even grateful for its existence. The current Israeli establishment seems to have forgotten that.
Donald Trump's disastrous decision to end funding to UNRWA will doubtless result in a huge financial gap that might endanger the agency’s existence. Israel, for obvious historical and political reasons, would be the most logical candidate to fill it.
Seraj Assi is the author of The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimaging Nomadism in Modern Palestine (Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2018). Twitter: @Serajeas