Since its creation nearly 70 years ago with the passage of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 302, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has had its share of critics, and struggled to maintain operations while contending with the competing interests of donor states (especially one of its chief funders, the United States), Israel, other Arab states in the region (including those hosting Palestinian refugees) and Palestinians themselves. As current head of the organization Pierre Krähenbühl stated, UNRWA operates “in one of the most polarized and emotionally charged environments on the planet,” and criticism is to be expected. And yet, despite this criticism, the recent announcement by the US that they would cut all funding to UNRWA came as a shock, considering that in December of 2017, the two parties had negotiated a full funding agreement.
The Trump administration has made no secret of its aversion to the agency. In January of this year, the US State Department announced that it would withhold US$65 million of a $125 million aid package earmarked for UNRWA, which had been preceded by a series of tweets by US President Donald Trump stating that the US receives no “appreciation or respect” from Palestinians in exchange for its aid.
It has been argued that the cuts to UNRWA’s budget are strategically aimed at pushing the Palestinian leadership back to the negotiating table. The cuts followed the administration’s controversial and internationally condemned decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December last year. It is also worth noting that Trump has tasked his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a real estate developer with no prior relevant experience, with negotiating peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Foreign Policy obtained internal emails sent by Kushner, which reveal an animus toward UNRWA and a desire to dismantle the organization and take the issue of Palestinian refugees off the negotiating table.
Indeed, Palestinian refugees’ right of return, which has been one of the more intractable matters in the negotiations, was one of the issues that was shelved during the Oslo Accords, and was meant to be negotiated later. Interestingly, the status of Jerusalem was shelved at the same time. In effect, the Trump administration is attempting to preemptively take two issues off the table, and resolve them in Israel’s favor before renewed negotiations even begin.
Unsurprisingly, the views of Kushner and the position of the Trump administration largely mirror those of the Israeli government, which has long wished to see UNRWA disappear. Israel’s criticism of UNRWA centers around its belief that it fosters anti-Israeli sentiment (particularly through its educational curriculum), and that it perpetuates Palestinian refugee status. This second and more significant concern stems from the Israeli view that the current number of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA (approximately 5 million) is a misrepresentation of fact, because it includes descendants of the original 1948 refugees (the 750,000 or so Palestinians displaced following the creation of Israel), and that Palestinians should not pass down refugee status across generations, and they are the only people who do so. Israel denies that such large numbers of Palestinians exist, because it has continually sought to diminish the issue of the right of return claimed by Palestinian refugees.
Israel has also argued that if any UN agency should take charge of Palestinians, it should be the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR). Many Palestinian refugees were originally assigned to UNWRA as opposed to UNHCR in an attempt not to normalize their refugee status, thus jeopardizing their right to return. To simultaneously argue that all Palestinians registered with UNRWA are not refugees and yet insist that they should fall under the mandate of UNHCR is, of course, contradictory.
Israel’s arguments regarding Palestinian refugee status and its negation of a Palestinian right to return under the law has been countered by significant legal authority and state practice. First, Israel’s claim that Palestinians are unique in passing down refugee status across generations is clearly erroneous. Palestinians are not unique in experiencing what is termed a “protracted refugee status.” Many other refugees across the globe, such as Afghans, Somalis, Sudanese, Angolans, Burmese and Burundians have lived in protracted refugee situations that have spanned generations. If there is something that has made the Palestinian refugee situation somewhat unique, it is the absence of a state that is willing and/or able to admit them. For example, an Afghan refugee currently residing in Pakistan may choose not to return to Afghanistan due to the ongoing violence there. She may be unwilling to return to Afghanistan, but there is no legal impediment to her return (and in fact, some Afghan refugees have been returning to their country). A Palestinian refugee who wishes to return to her homeland, by contrast, does not have this ability.
Israel, as of yet, has not been willing to accept the return of Palestinians expelled from their homes. In fact, even if Palestinians wished to return — not to their ancestral towns and villages within present-day Israel, but instead to villages in the West Bank — they would still be unable to do so, because Israel continues to exercise sovereignty over the borders of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
In light of this, Israel’s contention that Palestinian refugees should be subsumed by the UNHCR is ironic, considering that of the three “durable solutions” advocated by the UNHCR, “voluntary repatriation” has been the preferred solution, especially since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, of the three “durable solutions” (the other two being resettlement to third countries and local integration), repatriation or return is the only one that is an absolute obligation on states, since no state is legally required to absorb or resettle refugees (actually, of the three durable solutions, resettlement benefits the smallest percentage of refugees on a global level).
The Palestinian right to return is rooted in several branches of international law, including the Law of State Succession, international humanitarian law, international refugee law, human rights law, and by UN resolutions, especially the UNGA Resolution 194, which stipulates that those refugees wishing to return to their homes should be permitted to do so (and those not willing or those who lost property should be compensated).
Ironically, Palestinians were initially skeptical of UNRWA, especially in its early years. They saw the agency’s aid as a means of placating them and wishing them to forget about their homeland. Americans saw it as a stabilizing force, one that could counter forces of communism and, later, religious extremism.
Although, like any large international organization, UNRWA suffers from a degree of bureaucratic inefficiency and waste, the services it provides for its beneficiaries remain critical. In its five areas of operation — the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria — UNRWA provide key services: Across 711 schools, it provides education to more than half a million children, its health facilities receive more than 8 million visits annually and it provides microfinance to beneficiaries to promote self-reliance and emergency assistance. UNRWA’s services in the Gaza Strip are particularly critical. One million Palestinians, nearly half the strip’s population, rely on UNRWA for food aid. In a territory with soaring unemployment, UNRWA employs 13,000 Palestinians. In fact, UNRWA is unique among UN agencies in employing so many of its beneficiaries, though it should be noted that the highest ranks within the organizational structure continue to be filled by international staff.
The services UNRWA provides are so critical that even some within Israel have expressed criticism of the US decision to cut funding, fearing that the vacuum left by UNRWA could be filled by Hamas. Others point out that it would lead to humanitarian collapse, and put a strain on relations with other countries in the region housing Palestinians that would be impacted by the cuts. It is important to mention here that two of the other countries where UNRWA has operations, Lebanon and Jordan, have also been hosting large numbers of refugees as a consequence of wars in Iraq and Syria. In addition, although the US may be using the cuts to put pressure on the Palestinian leadership, some have argued that Palestinian discontent is more likely to be expressed against the US, Israel and UNRWA itself.
In fact, immediately following cuts and layoffs of some UNRWA staff, protests broke out in the Gaza Strip, resulting in dozens of injuries. “Trump wants to starve us,” one protester told reporters. Another added, “if they want to close UNRWA, let me go back to my land.”
The Trump administration’s strategy of imposing additional hardship on a long-suffering population as a negotiation tactic and means of bypassing difficult issues is unlikely to succeed. Aside from the vital services UNRWA provides, many Palestinians see it as a “reservoir of memory, holding thousands of documents attesting to the Palestinian historical tragedy.”
The fact is that a UN Resolution created UNRWA and the US cannot unilaterally act to dismantle it, or force key negotiating points off the table. Though, even in the best of scenarios, it is unlikely that all Palestinians registered with UNRWA would return or receive compensation, their rights under international law cannot simply be made to disappear. As the UNRWA head said: “One cannot simply wish away 5 million people.”