Could UNRWA closure actually benefit Palestinian refugees?

Could UNRWA closure actually benefit Palestinian refugees?
Comment: We should be looking for ways to end this long Palestinian exile, not sustain it, writes Ghada Karmi.
6 min read
17 Sep, 2018
How long can these refugees be left in camps without end and without future? [Getty]
A new Israeli poll, reported in Haaretz on 15 September, reveals that 56 percent of Jewish respondents believe that Jews are a chosen people, rising to a figure of 79 percent of those among them who self-identify as right-wingers.

No need for any shock and horror at this news. How could it be otherwise at the dawn of the Jewish New Year this month, when Israel's fortunes are riding so high? A time when Israel's biggest bugbear, the Palestinian right of return which at a stroke would strip the Jewish state of its pretensions to be the 'Nation-state of the Jewish people', finally might be abolished?

No effort towards this end in the past has ever succeeded. But, with Donald Trump in the White House it might actually happen. His presidency has been the icing on the cake for an Israeli state already accustomed to a string of compliant US administrations working on its behalf.

David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel and ardent Zionist, who declared in 2016 that President Trump would support Israel's annexation of parts of the West Bank, exemplifies this lavish American indulgence of Israel.

The US move of its embassy to occupied Jerusalem in May of this year was the start of a string of actions designed to rip up the Palestinian cause and destroy the cohesion of the Palestinian people. And Trump's attack on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, aims to do the same.

Jared Kushner, Trump's hard-line Zionist son-in-law, whose ignorance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only matched by his cruelty towards Palestinians, was reported by Foreign Policy in early August to be agitating for, "an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA".

Endlessly sustaining these refugees with charitable donations that leave them at the mercy of the vagaries of donor countries, is not - if it ever was - a viable option any more

In that, he was echoing Israel's declared long-held, desire to dismantle the organisation. Trump heeded the call and, having announced at the beginning of the year he was cutting US aid to UNRWA by $65 million from an annual donation of $364 million, cut it to zero by the end of August.

The rationale behind this was the cynical assertion that it was UNRWA that had perpetuated the Palestinian refugees' adherence to their right of return to their ancestral land. This act was quickly followed by a US call for a re-definition of what constituted a refugee in need of UNRWA assistance. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, who is no more knowledgeable about the issue than Kushner, calls most of the refugees on UNRWA's books 'fictitious'.

The US decided it would only accept the still-surviving refugees from 1948 as legitimate, and not their descendants, who UNRWA currently estimates to be about 5.4 million. Yet the  definition of who is a refugee used by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, and also UNRWA, includes those refugees' descendants.

Re-defining the Palestinian refugees as the US proposes to do is illegal under international law, as is its aim to dismantle their UN agency. UNRWA was created by UN General Assembly Resolution 302 in 1949, and can only be closed down by the UN.

But the damage is done, in spite of these facts.

By acting unilaterally, a state as powerful as America is able to influence political perceptions and create new realities. Its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017 had the immediate effect of expanding Israel's settlement building on Arab land. And the current attempt to defund UNRWA so as to remove the refugee issue from the negotiating table can be expected to damage further the prospects for the Palestinian right of return.

In recognition of the danger the US decision poses to the Palestinians, several countries have stepped in to save UNRWA. Qatar and Saudi Arabia donated $150 million during this year, and the Gulf states with Turkey, Canada, and Norway have pledged a total of $238 million; Germany has promised to increase its contribution, and Jordan announced its intention to start a fund-raising campaign for UNRWA during the UN meeting this month.

Yet in creating this crisis for the Palestinians, the US president may have unknowingly stumbled on an important truth that could, paradoxically, help them.

"The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation, [UNRWA]," said Heather Nauert, spokesman for the state department, as the decision to end UNRWA's funding was announced.

"Palestinians, wherever they live, deserve better than an endlessly crisis-driven service provision model.  They deserve to be able to plan for the future."

Whatever her real aim in saying that, and however unfair her criticism of UNRWA, there was truth in most of what she said.

Israel should be forced to comply with the laws of the international community, and the laws of humanity and common decency

The Palestinian refugees who have spent 70 years living in camps with no end to their ordeal in sight do indeed deserve better. Endlessly sustaining them with charitable donations that leave them at the mercy of the vagaries of donor countries, as we have just seen happen with Trump's America, is not, if it ever was, a viable option any more.

The initial aim behind the creation of UNRWA had been that it would temporarily support the Palestinian displaced by Israel in 1948 while they waited to return to their homes.

Read more: Trump's endgame in Palestine

UN General Assembly Resolution 194, passed in 1948, and reaffirmed countless times since then, underpinned in law the right of return for the displaced people. The legal case for this Palestinian right is unassailable, and maintaining UNRWA's role ad infinitum was never part of the plan. But a combination of Israeli obduracy and western complicity with Israel's wishes has meant that the refugees were never allowed to return.

The result of this policy has been the creation of the world's oldest refugee community and the birth in exile of generations of stateless people with dismal lives. That in turn has bred a whole industry of charitable refugee organisations,  NGOs, and do-gooders, all of which help to sustain the status quo rather than ending it.

The sheer longevity and insolubility of the problem have also induced a sense of passivity and inertia in the Palestinians themselves. There is a prevalent feeling that the refugees, like the poor, are always with us.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, calls most of the refugees on UNRWA's books 'fictitious'

In this context what Trump's careless actions have inadvertently done is to alert the rest of us to this unacceptable situation. How long can these refugees be left in camps without end and without future? Is it not time that we asked this question?

The donor countries and other friends of the Palestinians, so willing to help with funds but nothing else, cannot continue to duck the issue. From now on they must look for ways to end this long Palestinian exile by confronting what everyone has been too afraid to contemplate: forcing Israel to comply with the laws of the international community and the laws of humanity and common decency.

Releasing the refugees to live normal lives in their homeland or wherever they wish is the only way to ensure they attain what the US state department representative has said they deserve, "to be able to plan for the future".

Ghada Karmi is a Palestinian doctor, activist, academic and writer.

Follow her on Twitter: @Ghadakarmi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.