Return of the refugee crisis

The U.N. agency devoted to perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem is cutting its budget. Rather than this being a case of Trump hurting children, defunding UNRWA would give peace a chance.

Boys at an UNRWA school in the Gaza Strip, September 2011. Credit: Shareef Sarhan/U.N. Photo.
Boys at an UNRWA school in the Gaza Strip, September 2011. Credit: Shareef Sarhan/U.N. Photo.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Thanks to a decision by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, an international agency tasked with caring for refugees is facing budget cuts. But rather than providing more proof of why Trump shouldn’t be president, this particular decision deserves support even from those who normally oppose everything else he does.

Palestinian boys raise their hands at a school in Gaza supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in September 2011. Credit: U.N. Photo/Shareef Sarhan.

The agency is the United Nations Relief Works Agency, or UNRWA, the institution tasked by the world body to deal with Palestinian refugees. Trump’s decision to reduce U.S. contributions to the agency by approximately 80 percent—from $360 million given annually to $80 million—has been a devastating blow to UNRWA. As The New York Times reported last week, UNRWA will cut 260 jobs, and reduce mental-health services and mobile-health clinics. According to the agency, unless the U.S. donations are replaced, the next step will be cut backs involving UNRWA schools and food assistance, in addition to more layoffs.

As their spokesman told the Times, “We may have over half a million kids on the streets of the Middle East—more than half of them in Gaza—rather than in U.N. schools,” he said. “Whose interests does that serve?”

It all sounds terrible. But rather than Trump being a hard-hearted villain who wants to hurt helpless refugees, the problem is that the cuts to UNRWA don’t go far enough. The most rational thing to do with UNRWA is to get rid of it altogether.

Created in the aftermath of Israel’s War of Independence, UNRWA is one of two U.N. agencies devoted to dealing with refugees. One agency (UNRWA) works with those Palestinian Arabs who fled their homes in what became Israel and with their descendants. The other—the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR—deals with all every other refugee in the world.

The job of the latter agency is not merely to provide succor to people made homeless by wars or natural catastrophes, but also to help find them new homes. AS UNHCR says on its website, it is dedicated to finding solutions for the plight of refugees. As such, if voluntary repatriation is not possible, it seeks to help people resettle elsewhere or to become integrated into the nations where they have fled.

While refugees continue to be created, such as the estimated 4 million created by the Syrian civil war, the efforts to help those who lost their homes in the chaos of the 1940s were sound. While tens of millions were made refugees by World War II, the Holocaust and the wars that followed, including those that were the result of the attempts to partition the massive subcontinent of India and the small Mandate for Palestine, the world’s record in resettling those large populations was pretty good. None of them are still refugees.

But that isn’t what happened to the Palestinian Arabs who either fled their homes in the expectation of a quick return after the destruction of the newborn state of Israel or the much smaller number who were forced to leave by the Israelis during the course of the fighting. Instead, the several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees—a number that was matched by the total of Jews who fled or were forced out of their homes in Arab and Muslim countries around the same time—were kept in camps throughout the region, and prevented from either being resettled or integrated into the Arab countries where they lived.

The lion’s share of the blame for that awful decision belongs to Palestinian leaders and the Arab nations, which decided that the refugees would be useful props in the ongoing struggle to destroy Israel. But the instrument of that policy was UNRWA.

While providing services that are represented as acts of philanthropy, UNRWA’s real purpose was to ensure that Palestinians stayed in the camps. Not only did that act of cruelty foreclose avenues for resettlement or integration. It made sure their numbers grew since each successive generation born in these camps, which soon took on the character of urban slums rather than tent cities, are then given refugee status. That is why the United Nations has registered more than 4 million people as Palestinian refugees for the purpose of receiving assistance, even though the overwhelming majority of them do not fit the conventional definition of a refugee.

UNRWA feeds, educates and employs a lot of people. But UNRWA employees, especially those in Gaza, are often either members of Hamas or cooperate with it, and have used the group’s facilities to store weapons or to shelter terrorists. UNRWA’s services also help inculcate each successive generation in the century-old war against Zionism. The so-called “right of return” is not merely a bargaining chip that the Palestinians seek to use in negotiations with the Israelis—to the contrary, the refugees still believe it is possible to erase the last 70 years of history and eliminate the Jewish state. The marches of return organized by Hamas this spring along the Gaza border with Israel—and that continue each Friday, growing in extremism—have promoted a goal that many millions of Palestinians still think will happen.

As former Labor Party Knesset member Einat Wilf makes clear in a forthcoming book, The War of Return, on the problem, this delusion is something many of those who cling to the idea that Israeli concessions on land or settlements will bring peace prefer to ignore.

That’s why the best favor the world could do for the Palestinians is to pull the plug on UNRWA and start over with a new agency devoted to solving the refugee problem, rather than perpetuating it.

Trump’s efforts to force UNRWA to change aren’t acts of spite. They represent a step in the right direction. The best way to care for the refugees is to make it clear that they will not be able to “return” in order to destroy Israel, and that they must make new lives elsewhere. That is a purpose for which there would be no shortage of contributions. But if they refuse, then they should no longer look to the United States to support an agency dedicated to obstructing hopes for peace.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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