U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, announced Tuesday that the Trump administration intends to stop funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the agency tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees, until the Palestinians "return to the negotiating table" with Israel.
Israeli ministers and pundits celebrated the announcement, declaring the UN body that perpetuates the Palestinian problem would finally be held accountable, and expressing hopes that this step will even hasten its long overdue end.
If shut down, UNRWA, according to this view, would no longer be able to take advantage of its place at the UN table to bash Israel, educate terrorists, and support the Palestinian cause with its considerable resources.
Admittedly, UNRWA has many problems, including its politics, determined since 1949 by their one-sided mandate: to carry out direct relief and works programs for Palestine refugees. And of those foundational issues, its unique definition of a "Palestinian refugee" has been critical.
That definition determines that a refugee was a normal resident of Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 - 15 May 1948, and who lost both his/her home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict. Palestinian refugees, and descendants of male Palestinian refugees, including legally adopted children, are eligible to register for UNRWA services. That means that until the Palestinian refugee problem is solved, the organization will continue to have a mandate to operate.
However, Haley’s announcement introduces further unpredictability in an already unpredictable Palestinian arena. If Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem, considered the most important issue at the heart of the conflict, brought thousands of Palestinians out on the streets to clash with Israeli forces, the refugee issue exasperates the situation further.
The refugee issue and Jerusalem are arguably the most important issues to the Palestinians and they have both been, according to President Trump’s tweet, effectively "taken off the table": "We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table...But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"
According to UNRWA there are 2,158,277 registered refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. The organization supports and administers 363 schools serving 311,071 pupils, 65 health facilities with over 5.2 million patient visits last year, 134,404 recipients of a social safety net.
By cutting financial support to that UN body, the weakest members of Palestinian society will be hurt, leaving them at the mercy of the struggling Palestinian Authority, that could crumble under the sudden burden.
Traditionally, Palestinian refugee camps have been hotbeds for terrorist activities, staging grounds for some of the most horrific attacks against Israel and frequent locations of violent exchanges with the IDF.
But it appears that in the event of a U.S. aid withdrawal, the alternatives in the foreseeable future are worse for the Palestinians. If UNRWA can not find an alternative benefactor to cover its number one contributor - and the huge sum of $368,429,712 in 2016 - the organization would most probably have difficulty providing even the most basic services.
By weakening UNWRA and, consequentially, the Palestinian population even further, without a real administrative alternative, I believe that Palestinians will be even more susceptible more extremism and violence. This will not contribute to security or stability in the region.
While UNRWA is far from perfect, the Israeli defense establishment, and the Israeli government as a whole, have over the years come to the understanding that all the alternatives are worse for Israel. In an extreme situation, the administration of those refugees could fall on Israel's shoulders.
A review of UNRWA, its mission, its mandate, the refugee definition, the scope of its operations, are all long overdue - but they serve a purpose for the Palestinians and for Israel alike. Severing the organization's funding raises far more questions than answers.
Key questions remain. What is the expected outcome for the United States from the decision, and will this be the best route to get there? Will cutting millions of dollars push the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table? Or, will it disconnect them further from the "mother of all deals"?
And what price will the Palestinian people, refugees and their descendants pay? How will this decision improve Israel's security? Or will it give a hard push of unpredictability into a predictable cycle of violence?
Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Peter Lerner is a crisis communications consultant, he served for 25 years in the IDF as a spokesperson and a liaison officer to international organizations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Twitter: @LTCPeterLerner
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