Will Trump alter US policy on Palestinian refugees and their UN agency?

Will Trump’s approach extend to U.S. funding for UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency that is solely dedicated to the Palestinians?

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.

Since taking office nearly a year ago, President Donald Trump has not shied away from challenging conventional stances on domestic and international issues, including the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Will Trump’s approach extend to U.S. policy towards UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency that is solely dedicated to the Palestinians?

Following Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, reversing decades of American policy, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas said the U.S. is “no longer an honest mediator in the peace process.” But Trump has fired back, questioning the Palestinians’ commitment to negotiations as well as the sensibility of U.S. aid to the PA.

“We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect…with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?” Trump tweeted Jan. 2.

After Trump’s tweet, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told reporters that the U.S. remains committed to the peace process, but implied that America would cut off aid to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) if the Palestinians refuse to participate in negotiations.

“I think the president has basically said that he doesn’t want to give any additional funding until the Palestinians are agreeing to come back to the negotiation table,” Haley said. “We’re trying to move for a peace process, but if that doesn’t happen the president is not going to continue to fund that situation.”

Haley’s comments followed the recent decision by the U.N.’s Administrative and Budgetary Committee to reject an increase in funding for UNRWA.

Israel has accused UNRWA of promoting anti-Israel bias and incitement. In January 2017, textbooks used in UNRWA schools were revealed to reference Zionism as a foreign “colonial movement,” while denying the historical and religious connections between Jews and Israel.

Holding UNRWA accountable

Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East nonprofit and co-author of the 2013 book “Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief,” welcomed the Trump administration’s questioning of funding for UNRWA.

“We have invested heavily in UNRWA since its inception in the early 1950s,” Romirowsky told JNS. “We have spent over $70 billion in the refugee enterprise at large. Historically speaking, we have gone against our own American foreign policy from the get go on this. The original intent of American foreign policy here was resettlement, repatriation and reintegration. On all three accounts we have failed.”

Unlike all other global refugee situations, which are handled by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, self-described displaced Palestinians and their descendants have had their own dedicated U.N. agency that provides education and social services to refugees scattered throughout the Middle East—mainly in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

According to UNRWA, when the agency was launched, it provided services to about 750,000 refugees. But since Palestinian refugee status is “inherited,” that number has grown about seven-fold to 5 million today.

“The Palestinians are the only population of refugees that continues to grow due to the unique definition of who is a Palestinian refugee according to UNRWA,” Romirowsky said. “That of course has to do with the ability to inherit refugee status. That is unique to the Arab Palestinians and that is part of the problem.”

The U.S. is the largest donor to UNRWA, providing more than $355 million to the agency in 2016, as well as the leading funder of the PA, to the tune of more than $5.2 billion since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

“Every year UNRWA goes to Congress and asks for more money because the refugees continue to grow, but there is no accountability or transparency,” Romirowsky said.

Changing UNRWA

One step Romirowsky recommended that the Trump administration take is to end the “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees, which in turn would change the definition of who is a Palestinian refugee and end the growth in refugee numbers that is linked to an increase in funding.

“The number one step the administration should take is end the right of return,” said Romirowsky. “What that means in practical terms is changing the definition of a refugee. This goes back to the some of the previous proposed congressional language on UNRWA legislation. You need to end the right of return in order to end the refugee growth.”

“Let me be clear, it doesn’t mean that individual Palestinians that want or deserve aid won’t receive it,” he said. “It means they will receive it based on need, not on some salacious status of being a refugee in perpetuity.”

Congress has attempted to amend the U.S. language on Palestinian refugees in the past. In 2012, legislation spearheaded by former Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) sought to redefine the language and shrink the number of Palestinian refugees from 5 million to about 30,000.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Trump administration pursuing this, and this goes with previous American administrations’ stance on the issue to demand accountability and transparency from agencies like UNRWA,” Romirowsky said.

“The U.S. taxpayer is paying UNRWA and it continues to demand more money from taxpayers,” he said. “What is our return on this? It is not solving the problem. It is a problem that continues to grow and metastasize.”

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