Defunding aid for Palestinian refugees is not a road to peace

Defunding aid for Palestinian refugees is not a road to peace
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The Trump administration’s attempts to eliminate the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that aids Palestinian refugees rejects historic U.S. policy and will only serve to deepen their plight and exacerbate relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

President TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE’s lawyer Jay Sekulow is the latest official to defend the dangerously misguided policy to defund the agency. Sekulow criticizes the agency for having failed to resettle Palestinian refugees and for its policy of considering the descendants of the original 1948 refugees themselves to be refugees.


Asserting that UNRWA, by granting descendants refugee status, is contributing to the maintenance of Palestinians’ national and refugee consciousness ignores the pervasive conditions that underpin their circumstances.


UNRWA was created in 1949 under a U.S. initiative and with strong support by the international community, and has largely enjoyed bipartisan U.S. support ever since. UNRWA’s assistance programs were modeled off the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation created by Congress in 1933 to provide economic development to the Tennessee Valley during the Great Depression

Annual U.S. funding for UNRWA — roughly $360 million, which is dwarfed by $3.2 billion the U.S. sends to Israel — provides food, shelter, emergency assistance, medical and educational services for Palestinian refugees in its five areas of operation: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. The Trump administration’s 2018 slashing of $300 million plunged UNRWA into immediate crisis. 

UNRWA is, at its core, a humanitarian agency with a mandate to provide relief and services to Palestinian refugees until a just and lasting solution emerges. UNRWA’s role has never been to solve a refugee “problem,” which can only be achieved through a political process. Changes to UNRWA operations can only be made by a UN General Assembly Resolution. It remains extremely unlikely the General Assembly would vote to dissolve UNRWA in the absence of a peace settlement that resolves the conditions under which the Agency was created.

Rather than “perpetuating” refugees, the UNRWA in fact sought to provide longer-term integration of Palestinian into local economies. It also launched pilot projects to move Palestinians to underpopulated areas, such as in Libya, for resettlement, but none of these efforts absorbed significant numbers of people, while the relief burdens grew.

Palestinian refugees within UNRWA’s geographical mandate cannot be merged into UNHCR as some would imply, because the legal instruments governing UNHCR’s mandate excludes refugees who are being provided protection or assistance by other UN agencies (namely, UNRWA). 

While regional conflicts raged, the Palestinians remained refugees, because governments did not agree to repatriate them, integrate them, or resettle them to third countries. Many remained in refugee camps created after the 1948 and 1967 wars and the majority were not accorded full citizenship where they resided. None of these conditions have ever been within UNRWA’s purview.

Sekulow wrongly claims UNRWA changed the definition of who is a Palestinian refugee. UNRWA retains no authority to create or revise legal definitions. Moreover, UN agencies have extended assistance provisions to the descendants of numerous other refugee populations when political solutions remained elusive.

Upon its establishment, it had to determine whom it served, operationally, and the General Assembly has asked UNRWA to deliver services to generations of Palestine refugees on the basis of this determination. UNRWA, by its mandate, must regard all people who qualify for its assistance based on their place of residence, original privation due to loss of home and livelihood, and current material conditions. Refugees continue to view their UNRWA ration card as an identity card because they lack any viable alternative.

At different times throughout its 68-year history, UNRWA has sought to reduce it rolls by eliminating food rations to people who did not need them. However, host countries were rarely receptive of these efforts.

In 1964 the Jordanian government, fearing violence from people who lost access to UNWA resources, pressured the agency to continue expanding its services. The U.S. and U.K. also expressed fears that the fragile Hashemite kingdom could fall into the arms of the USSR. The UN General Assembly obliged and prevented likely turmoil by continuing to assist Palestinians refugees in Jordan.

Sekulow and his colleagues fail to recognize the extreme unlikelihood that host countries — Jordan, Lebanon, Syria — would assume full responsibility for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Such a move would place tremendous and untenable economic and political burdens on countries that already face unrest from surges in refugee flows and spillover violence from the Syrian civil war. While Jordan has offered citizenship to some Palestinians, the Kingdom continues to avoid taking full responsibility for their care.

The idea that abolishing UNRWA — or starving it and its clients by defunding its operations — will promote peace is illogical and dangerous. When has a hungry, underemployed, displaced and deprived population been moved toward peace and reconciliation with those to whom it attributes its afflictions? People in such situations tend rather to solidify their national consciousness and rise up against perceived oppressors. Israelis know this well, and that is why they also depend on UNRWA.

Defunding UNRWA is a profoundly mistaken and inhumane policy and evidences a shocking lack of empathy and comprehension of how deprived people react to deteriorating circumstances. It will prove destructive to both the welfare of Palestinians, and to Israel. 

Benjamin N. Schiff is James E. Monroe professor emeritus of politics and law at Oberlin College, Ohio. He is the author of Refugees unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to Palestiniansand Building the International Criminal Court.