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Why aren’t Muslim countries leading the charge on aid for the Palestinians?

A teacher leads a class at an UNRWA school in the Gaza Strip, September 2011. Credit: Shareef Sarhan/U.N. Photo.
A teacher leads a class at an UNRWA school in the Gaza Strip, September 2011. Credit: Shareef Sarhan/U.N. Photo.

Why aren’t Muslim countries leading givers to the Palestinian cause? The question has renewed relevance upon a United Nations agency’s recent release of its list of donors.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) claims to provide aid to around 5 million Palestinian “refugees,” a number that is disputed by the pro-Israel community because UNRWA also serves refugees’ descendants. Published this month, UNRWA’s list of donors for 2016 says Western countries and Japan are the most significant contributors to the agency’s budget, while the only major Muslim givers are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Further, the Muslim nations’ giving lags behind top donors such as the U.S. and European Union countries.

Ronen Yizhak, head of the Middle East Studies department at Israel’s Western Galilee College, told the discrepancy between Western and Arab-Muslim giving to the Palestinians “has been the case throughout the history of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.” On the Arab-Muslim side, “there is a lot of talking, but little actual deeds,” he said. Yizhak pointed out that after the 2014 Gaza war, the international community pledged $5 billion to rebuild the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave, but much of the money pledged by Arab states went undelivered.

Daniel Pipes, a historian and president of the Middle East Forum think tank, explained the funding discrepancy by noting that given Arab and Muslim leaders’ belief that the West is to blame for Palestinian refugees’ plight, they view funding UNRWA as “a Western responsibility because the West backs Israel.”

UNRWA bias

Critics of UNRWA say the international dollars invested in the U.N. agency serve to perpetuate the Palestinian conflict with Israel, particularly due to anti-Israel bias in UNRWA’s school curriculum and its broad definition of what constitutes a Palestinian refugee.

Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East nonprofit and the co-author of “Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief,” told that if Palestinians gave up their identity as refugees, “it would feel as if they were giving up their Palestinian identity” as a whole.

“The perception within the Palestinian and larger Arab world is that the Palestinians have a divine right to return to Israel and that no leader has the mandate to ever give this up,” said Romirowsky, who is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum think tank.

Romirowsky said there is international pressure to keep the funds flowing to UNRWA despite shortcomings in the program, such as anti-Israel incitement in school textbooks and alleged associations with Hamas.

The refugee issue, according to Romirowsky, is a tool used for bashing Israel.

“UNRWA says they are needed until a resolution of the conflict,” he said, “but in fact they are gatekeepers that ensure there will be no resolution, with Palestinian refugees being the only ones in the world kept in their position for perpetuity.”

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