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The straw that may break the US’ back as Middle East peacemakers

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While many in America were absorbing the death of U.S. foreign policy icon Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Trump administration made an error on the Middle East that was so profound and misguided that it will haunt us for years to come. 

On Friday, the State Department abruptly announced that the Trump administration would no longer fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), an organization funded by every American president — Republican and Democrat — since it was created 70 years ago as a cornerstone of America’s support for stability in the Middle East and flagship of our values to provide for the most vulnerable.

Indeed, UNWRA is so in-sync with our values that American citizens directly donate millions of dollars to UNWRA each year — more than some countries.

But should we really be surprised? We already know that Trump’s actions have been antithetical to refugees at home and abroad, and we also know that in a global economy of over $100 trillion dollars, a meager $300 million cut by the U.S. should be able to be covered by another country.

That’s true on both counts, but in that truth lies the problem: the problem for America, for Palestinians and even for Israelis. What is also true is that Trump’s action is based on such a fundamentally flawed misunderstanding of the situation that it may have the opposite of its intended effect.

But before we get to that, let’s look at the immediate impact: UNWRA, which provides vital life-saving services, health care and education to stateless refugees in the Middle East, is now scrambling for funds.

These funds go toward a modern, secular education for 500,000 boys and girls; vaccinations and health clinics that provide services to over 3 million refugees and a basic level of dignity for millions who otherwise would lead lives of despair.

While some donors like Canada, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stepped in to offset part of what the U.S. is cutting, UNWRA will still have to reduce services. Those service reductions hurt people who are not even citizens of any nation.

So when UNRWA cuts back services in the impoverished refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza, what forces on the ground will fill the void? Whomever it is, they are unlikely to be America’s friends.

Nowhere are the UNWRA cuts more acute than in the Gaza Strip, where 2 million souls inhabit a tiny sliver of land that few can gain permission to leave. There UNRWA provides services to 1.3 million people, spending about 40 percent of its overall budget.

Roughly 262,000 boys and girls are enrolled in 267 UNWRA schools there. Twenty-two health clinics provide for millions of patient visits a year. It is unlikely that any agency could provide significantly better quality services for less cost.

Through these moves, America has further written itself out of the process of peacemaking in the Middle East. Trump has sent an unmistakable message to the Palestinian people: He callously disregards their most basic needs.

Trump has also sent that powerful message to their friends and allies across the Middle East and the rest of the world. Trump’s message will engender the opposite of goodwill and will further erode America’s moral leadership in the Middle East.

Indeed, the long-term problem is more profound, and it’s essential to understand because the Trump administration seeks to redefine what it means to be a Palestinian refugee, which in turn could have implications for refugees worldwide.

Underlying the Trump administration’s cuts to UNRWA is the false premise that Palestinian refugees derive their refugee status from UNRWA. They don’t. They derive it from international law. UNWRA is simply provide social services to these stateless refugees.

Also underlying Trump’s attack on UNWRA is the false premise that other refugee populations don’t transfer their refugee status to their children. Wrong again. International law conveys refugee status to children of other refugee populations until permanent homes can be found.

Finally, underlying Trump’s attack is the false premise that somehow cutting funds to UNWRA and to development projects in the West Bank and Gaza will somehow pressure the Palestinian National Authority. Again, it won’t; others will fill the void.

Anyhow, Trump is so unpopular there that any pressure he applies to the Palestinian leadership only makes them look stronger.

At its core, the century-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about two fundamental things: land and people. In particular, it’s about which group of people gets to live on which part of the land.

Although Jews and Arabs are about of equal number in the Holy Land, in the past decades, Israel has had full control of roughly 90 percent of the land. The Palestinians have significant — but not full — control of around 5 percent. Around 5 percent is shared. 

What Trump’s actions seem to seek to achieve is to somehow convince the millions of Palestinian refugees to give up their deep and abiding emotional attachment to their homeland. Their homeland is the Holy Land, and their attachment to it won’t just vanish.

Trump need look no further than the Jewish people’s 2,000-year longing to return to understand that a few meager decades will not diminish the longing of Palestinian refugees to return.

In September of 1993, on the lawn of the White House, an agreement was signed between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that many hoped would help channel the aspirations for peace, security, sovereignty and prosperity into a lasting agreement.

Although those objectives have not yet been achieved, failing to recognize one group’s attachment to the land —or seeking to obliterate their connection — will only serve the opposite of the cause of peace and profoundly damage America in the process.

As with Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, American redemption may require a reversal by a future president. Meanwhile, perhaps direct donations by U.S. citizens can help recuperate a shred of our American dignity.

Hady Amr is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served in the U.S. Department of State from 2013-2017, most recently as deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. Follow him on Twitter: @HadyAmr.

Tags Arab–Israeli conflict History of the Middle East Israeli–Palestinian conflict Israeli–Palestinian peace process John McCain Middle East Palestinian National Authority Palestinian nationalism Palestinian refugees State of Palestine UNRWA West Bank

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