Rather than helping to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue peacefully, the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) actually works to prolong it and promote violence. On January 16, President Trump announced that the US would donate only $60 million out of an expected $125 million to UNRWA, and has been threatening to end support for it. While reducing funding to UNRWA, these cutbacks do not go far enough in reforming the organization that has done so much to prolong the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
UNRWA History and Problems
First a little background. Approximately 700,000 Arabs fled from their homes in what became the state of Israel during its war of independence. In 1949, the UN established UNRWA to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees. It currently has over 30,000 employees, most of whom are Palestinian.
Subsequently, in 1950 the UN established the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This organization is responsible for – well, all refugees in the world except Palestinian refugees. According to its own figures, UNHCR has a staff of 10,966 working in 130 countries assisting 17.2 million people.
Strangely, over time the number of Palestinian refugees has increased rather than decreased. As of 2017, UNRWA recognized over 5.3 million Palestinian refugees, a sevenfold increase since 1949.
The reason is that Palestinian refugees are defined differently from all other refugees on the planet. Adopting the definition of the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR defines refugees as “people fleeing conflict or persecution.” But UNRWA’s also serves “descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children.” So over time, even as the number of Palestinians who actually fled from the Palestine Mandate has decreased, the number of people labeled as Palestinian refugees has ballooned.
Another difference between the two organizations: UNHCR’s mandate is to resolve refugee crises, as by assisting to integrate refugees into their host country or to resettle them in another country. That is not one of UNRWA’s objectives; on the contrary, it has resisted resettlement efforts.
Notably, the Palestinian Authority has likewise worked to prolong the refugee “crisis.” Since Oslo, it has obstructed efforts to eliminate refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank.
At present, UNRWA educates 515,260 schoolchildren, who are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who actually left their homes. 311,071 of these are in Gaza and the West Bank. UNRWA spent $760 million, or roughly two-thirds of its budget, on education in 2017. It also provides social services to 294,152 people and health care to 3.1 million.
In providing these services, UNRWA has become a partisan against Israel, promoting and aiding terrorism. Its educational texts demonize Jews, ignore or belittle Israel’s side of the conflict, and endorse violence. It has employed terrorists to fill high-level positions. And, its educational and medical facilities have been used to store Hamas arms caches and a booby-trapped tunnel entrance.
Given UNRWA’s background and the dysfunctional role it currently plays, reducing or even eliminating it would be a salutary objective. What follows is a proposal to leverage the UNRWA budget cuts into a constructive framework.
President Trump should announce that the U.S. will not make any further donations or offer support of any kind to UNRWA, but will consider giving the balance of the money to UNHCR, under the following conditions:
1) That UNRWA hand over all of its responsibilities to UNHCR and close up shop, completely and permanently.
2) That UNHCR bring in its own personnel at least at the managerial level, and commit to ending all cooperation with terrorists. (e.g. by employing Hamas personnel and allowing Hamas to store weapons and tunnel entrances in its facilities.)
3) That UNHCR identify who/how many of the people registered as eligible for UNRWA services actually meet UNHCR’s definition of refugees. Only the latter would be eligible for services/aid from UNHCR.
4) That UNHCR review all educational materials and revise/remove anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda from them.
5) That UNHCR prepare a written plan to integrate Palestinian refugees into their host countries and/or resettle them in another country outside of the conflict zone.
UNHCR must assume responsibility from UNRWA and take serious steps showing it has at least begun to fulfill each of the other conditions before any funding is restored (or, rather, given to UNHCR in the first instance.)
This proposal would eliminate a player obstructing resolution of the refugee issue. It would promote fairness among refugees by applying the same definitional rules and apportioning the same financial resources to Palestinian refugees that apply to every other refugee on the planet, including those from Syria, Iraq, and Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
By taking the initiative and demanding positive action from UNHCR to define and treat Palestinian refugees exactly like all other refugees, no more and no less, the U.S. will seize the moral high ground. Objections by the United Nations and European nations, which predictably opposed Trump’s UNRWA cuts, will ring ever more hollow. It will also provide a face-saving means for other Arab countries to offer little more than token opposition. Not only do they want Israel’s support against Iranian expansionism, and not only are they tired of Palestinian rejectionism, but they also have many other Arab refugees to deal with and a region in desperate need of the stabilization that only a permanent resolution can provide.
It would also focus attention on the reality that there are very few Palestinian refugees today, and push the narrative toward a resolution within the same framework governing other refugee problems – generally, integration and resettlement. There are 5.5 million Syrian refugees; the UN, European Union, Arab League, and media who lobby so persistently to “return” Palestinian “refugees” to Israel are not clamoring to return Syrian refugees to Syria. After World War II, Germany resettled 12 million ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe. Israel resettled most of the 850,000 Jews expelled from Arab lands and Iran after Israel was established. There is no reason why actual Palestinian refugees and their descendants could not be resettled in the Palestinian territories, or integrated into Lebanon, Jordan, and other places in which they reside.
Perhaps most importantly, these changes would pressure the Palestinian Authority to act like a true government, instead of a perennial troublemaker. Under the above proposal, the UN would (properly) stop providing services like education, social services, and health care to non-refugees, who will look to the PA to fill this role. The PA has focused on prolonging its conflict with Israel rather than building effective governing institutions. It can do this, because others (including UNRWA) provided services the PA should have but did not. The PA will likely try to continue dodging responsibility and point the finger of blame at Israel, the U.S., and the UN, but that does not mean it will succeed in doing so. As recent Iranian protests demonstrate, even oppressed and ideologically propagandized populations eventually tire of being exploited to finance their governments’ self-serving ambitions.
The PA has refused to negotiate in good faith, while maintaining maximalist positions demanding a “right of return” for “refugees,” and refusing to agree to a permanent border that accepts Israel in Jerusalem or anywhere else. Meanwhile, it has kept 5 million plus refugees and their descendants in limbo.
Trump recently pushed back against the Palestinian refusal to compromise by recognizing the reality that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital – a recognition that did not actually prejudice Palestinian claims to part of the city, only Palestinian claims to all of it. By pressuring the UN to work toward ending the refugee issue under the same standards it applies to other refugee conflicts, Trump would apply a counterweight against Palestinian rejectionism and promote resolution of the conflict.