Zaha Hassan, Palestine Square | Institute for Palestine Studies, August 3, 2018
“Continuing services to refugees is a right, not a handout.”
This was the message last week of one of the thousands in Gaza who came out to protest the UN Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) decision to not renew 154 employment contracts in the occupied Palestinian territory. Despite UNRWA’s best efforts, it has not been able to make up its current $250 million budget shortfall resulting from the U.S. decision to slash its contributions to the refugee agency.
Almost 12,500 Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on an UNRWA paycheck, which in many cases helps sustain more than just the nuclear family in the enclave where the unemployment rate is over 40%. It is unclear whether there will be enough funding for the 262,000 children in Gaza’s UNRWA schools to return to their classrooms this academic year.
The existential threat facing UNRWA is deliberate, and so are the dire consequences for the 5.3 million registered refugees it serves. President Donald Trump and his Middle East Team headed by advisor, Jared Kushner, have latched onto the idea that humanitarian relief may be used as leverage to force the Palestinian leadership back to a negotiating table set by Israel. Leaked details of the Kushner-crafted peace plan indicate that it is nothing more than a souped up, donor-infused version of the status quo that Israel seeks to have legitimated with the signature of President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian leader has infuriated the Administration by refusing to engage with it on these terms and so the Administration—along with the Republican-controlled Congress—has been tightening the financial noose around Palestinians.
[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | UNRWA and the Refugees: A Difficult but Lasting Marriage]
The idea of weaponizing humanitarian assistance provided to Palestinians is not new but it has never before found the currency it now has in the White House. Of late, right-wing think tanks, pro-“Greater Israel” Washington lobby groups and the “no daylight between Israel and the U.S.” politicians have been peddling the fiction that humanitarian relief to Palestinian refugees has been growing by leaps and bonds. They argue that aid money that maintains the camp infrastructure and enables the provision of essential services and work opportunities perpetuates refugeehood.
Of course, no Palestinian, or any other person for that matter, chooses to live as a stateless person in the squalor of a refugee camp dependent on food aid. The plight of Palestinian refugees is a result of a concerted effort by pre-state Zionist leaders and successive Israeli governments to avoid reaching a political solution based on international law and precedent. One need only look back on the remarks of Abba Eban, Israel’s representative to the UN, during the debate over whether the UN ought to accept Israel’s twice-rejected application for UN membership. Eban, though loathe to definitively state that Israel would permit the return of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees to their homes, promised that Israel would take no action “inconsistent with the resolutions of the [UN General] Assembly and the Security Council.” Furthermore, he stated that the refugee issue could only be solved within the United Nations and that acceptance of Israel as a member would make it easier to reach the desired political solution. He argued, however, that the timing for refugee return was premature; a peace agreement between Israel and the Arab states was required first so that borders could be established and repatriation could be implemented.