“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.
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.
Seventy years and two peace agreements between Israel and two of its Arab neighbors later, Israel has neither defined its borders nor allowed a single Palestinian refugee to return home. Palestinian refugeehood started with Israel’s depopulation of 418 Palestinian villages, expelling approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, and it will only end when Israel is compelled to implement repatriation and reparations. This is what the international community required of Israel in 1949 as a condition for its admittance as a member of the UN.
And what of the argument of donor largesse? According to UNRWA, the average annual spending per Palestinian refugee has actually fallen over the years from about $200 in 1975 to around $110 today. The agency’s continuing and growing budget is a function of the enduring nature of the need and natural population growth. If the U.S. is fatigued by financial support for UNRWA’s work, then the answer is to take action to compel Israel to comply with international law rather than blocking UN mechanisms that might be used to support a political solution.
The evisceration of UNRWA, however, goes well beyond dollars and cents. It’s about shielding Israel from its legal responsibilities. House Resolution 6451 is illustrative. The proposed legislation would make it U.S. policy to advance a definition of ‘Palestine refugee’ that would limit contributions to UNRWA to only those actual survivors of displacement between the period of June 1946 and May 1948. Resolution sponsor, Congressman Lamborn, estimates that, only 20,000 to 30,000 Palestinians should be eligible for UNRWA assistance.
What does Lamborn and his ilk think is going to happen to the millions of Palestinian refugees if UNRWA is unable to fulfill its mandate? Even the Israeli military establishment recognizes that killing the refugee agency by a thousand budget cuts is no solution. The security implications of having hundreds of thousands of young people out of school, out of work, and without a means to obtain food in Gaza and the West Bank, does not bode well with them. Nor does the idea that Israel, as the occupying power, would have to step up and step into the vacuum left by the loss of UNRWA.
The Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party, provides that Israel is duty bound to ensure, to the fullest extent possible, the food and medical supplies as well as the public health and hygiene of the population of the occupied territory. If UN relief efforts in the occupied territories end, Israel is legally obligated to make provisions for the population. Israel taking on the monumental tasks that UNRWA has been shouldering for 70 years inside the occupied Palestinian territory is unlikely. Ignoring the plight of the Palestinian refugees under its control won’t make Israel’s responsibilities under international humanitarian law disappear. In fact, it guarantees that the matter will be taken up by a tribunal in the future. The proponents for dismantling UNRWA ought to consider this as they continue to do Israel’s bidding.
Zaha Hassan is a Middle East Fellow at New America. She is a human rights lawyer and former coordinator and senior legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during Palestine’s bid for UN membership (2010-2012).