Like every other declaration of intent by U.S. President Donald Trump or his aides, the recent statement about the need to change UNRWA’s mandate sounded at first like a gut reaction voiced without having studied the issue thoroughly, or perhaps a trial balloon. But on second thought, it meshes well with other administration steps to undermine and dismantle existing international arrangements – the nuclear deal with Iran, America’s relationship with other NATO countries, trade agreements.
Like its withdrawal from the Iran deal, America’s attitude toward UNRWA – which cares for Palestinian refugees – has clear Israeli fingerprints. Last year, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely urged Washington to move to close the agency in order to abolish the Palestinians’ refugee status. Former MK Einat Wilf, who represented first the Labor Party and then the breakaway Atzmaut party, has repeatedly urged the same.
The UN Works and Relief Agency began operating on May 1, 1950, with the temporary mandate of aiding refugees from Palestine in various ways until a “just resolution” to their problem would be found. But because such a solution hasn’t yet been found, the UN General Assembly extends the agency’s mandate every few years. Depending on circumstances, this mandate has sometimes been expanded to include other Palestinian populations, like those displaced in 1967, or Gaza residents who aren’t refugees but have suffered from Israeli military attacks. Its latest mandate runs through June 2020.
The problem with UNRWA, from the perspective of the Israelis and Americans who want it dismantled, isn’t that it funds aid to the needy. The problem is that the organization’s decades of existence is a Palestinian political achievement, reflecting an international consensus that Palestinian refugees are in a different category than other refugees.
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Other refugees had and have states that, in principle, they can or will be able to return to once the crisis that created their problem ends (like Rwandan and Syrian refugees), or alternatively, can move to (like ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe or ethnic Greeks expelled from Turkey). But the Palestinian refugees lost their homeland. They aren’t allowed to return to the state – Israel – established on its ruins and have no state of their own.
As long as there is no agreed upon solution to the conflict which led to the loss of their homeland, their descendants inherit their refugee status, regardless of their economic situation. The UN General Assembly, which adopted Resolution 194 (on the right of Palestinian refugees to either return or accept compensation, whichever they choose), is the one that extends UNRWA’s mandate every few years.
When the UN’s member states keep extending UNRWA’s mandate, the Palestinians’ political interpretation of this decision is that they are reiterating, again and again, that something remains unfinished and subject to dispute even about Israel within the pre-1967 lines, and that there are people still waiting to realize their right to return and live within those borders.
In practice, the nations of the world don’t stand behind the statement implicit in the extension of UNRWA’s mandate and in Resolution 194, which was never implemented. Neither do they stand behind many UN resolutions against the settlements and haven’t insisted on their implementation. But in international relations, UN resolutions were and still are a Palestinian political asset.
This is the Palestinian asset that Washington, following the lead of Israeli rightists and centrists, is now trying to liquidate. But it won’t be able to do so without undermining the UN’s status or dictating new rules of behavior and voting that go beyond its veto power in the UN Security Council.
Trump’s threat to punish countries that vote against America’s position in the UN by cutting the American aid they receive remains in force. The more time passes, the clearer it becomes that these Trumpian gut reactions follow a logical and consistent line of thought and action.
Therefore, it’s not hard to imagine the moment when America will vote at the UN against extending UNRWA’s mandate. And there will be countries that will fear to vote against America’s will.
The administration’s first tactic was to cut UNRWA’s funding, which it has already done. This is in line with the expected cut in USAID donations to the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s financial assault on the PA – deducting payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners from the customs duties Israel collects on the PA’s behalf and is obligated to transfer to the Palestinian treasury.
In recent years, America has been UNRWA’s largest donor, surpassing the European Union. But the Clinton and Obama administrations can’t be suspected of supporting UNRWA to promote the Palestinian refugees’ return to their homeland; quite the contrary. American and European donations to UNRWA, as well as to other aid organizations and the Palestinian Authority, have been primarily hush money. They were meant to compensate for the West’s unwillingness to pressure Israel to allow implementation of UN resolutions regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
International, and especially Western, donations, which rose following the 1993 Oslo Accords but have dropped over the last decade, compensated the Palestinians for the losses Israeli policy caused their economy (movement restrictions on goods and people, Israeli control of the West Bank’s Area C and the siege of Gaza). These donations subsidized the Israeli occupation under cover of peace negotiations. They prevented mass impoverishment and social explosions, produced layers of Palestinian bureaucracy that were dependent on them and had an immediate interest in preventing social and political unrest.
The Trump Administration is trying to shatter this post-1993 arrangement. It intends to leave Israeli superiority in place but to stop trying to conceal or soften it through financial compensation to the Palestinians. It evidently thinks this tactic will make it easier for it to impose the “deal of the century” – that is, the surrender agreement – on the Palestinians.