Amid the often unexpected twists and turns marring the decades-long struggle by Palestinians to achieve long-awaited justice for their cause, the defunding of UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency, has emerged as one of the primary goals of the Israeli political establishment and its subservient lawmakers in the US, especially since the far right in Israel began to move from the fringes to the center of the state’s political arena.
A seven-decade US policy of funding the UN agency, which is today responsible for more than 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and three host countries, ended abruptly in 2018, when then-President Donald Trump cut off $360 million, representing about a quarter of the agency’s annual budget.
That was a demand of the Zionist lobby in Washington and Likud leader and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It had nothing to do with consistent US policy in the Middle East or with serving America’s long-term interests in the region. Trump never consulted America’s regional allies, especially those hosting Palestinian refugees, namely Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. There was no thinking about the consequences of that decision and how it might have deep adverse effects not only on millions of refugees, but also on the outcome of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
From a hard-line Israeli point of view, the logic — if one can call it that — was that one of the thorniest so-called final status issues, that of the fate of Palestinian refugees and their right of return and/or compensation, would simply be swept under the carpet if and when UNRWA fizzled out of existence, leaving host countries with complex humanitarian and demographic problems. Israel, which caused the exodus of Palestinians from their homeland, would have washed its hands of this nagging problem.
Once again, American lawmakers are ready to trample on international law when it comes to serving Israeli interests
This evil plot ties naturally with the current drive to fatten existing illegal settlements and build new ones on occupied lands, annex the Jordan Valley, terminate the Hashemite custodianship over the Al-Aqsa compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and raze entire Arab neighborhoods in a bid to Judaize all of Jerusalem. The summation of these projects can be expressed in two words: ethnic cleansing.
While Palestinians on the ground can do their bit to slow down, but not stop, the colonial settler encroachment on their lands in the West Bank, they can do little or nothing to stop a superpower from defunding or weakening UNRWA.
The Biden administration restored funding to the agency in April 2021, which made the issue a partisan one. There are no guarantees that a Republican successor would not reverse that decision. Just like the notorious move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the US embassy there — which, by the way, did nothing to further peace or kick-start the stalled political process — cutting funds to UNRWA is likely to become the new US policy.
Already, the US Senate is mulling a bill that aims to halt the provision of benefits to UNRWA and the descendants of Palestinian refugees. Under the proposed bill, titled the United Nations Relief and Works Agency Accountability and Transparency Act, descendants of Palestinian refugees would no longer be considered refugees. The bill states that “derivative refugee status may only be extended to the spouse or a minor child of a Palestinian refugee.”
Furthermore, the bill stipulates that the US must halt any contributions to UNRWA or related entities unless and until the US secretary of state submits a written certification to the effect that “no official, employee, consultant, contractor, subcontractor, representative, affiliate of UNRWA” or other partner organization “has propagated or disseminated anti-American, anti-Israel, or anti-Semitic rhetoric, incitement or propaganda.”
The collapse of UNRWA would have an immediate destabilizing effect on Jordan, Syria and Lebanon
It goes further to describe any depictions of “Israelis as ‘occupiers’ or ‘settlers’” as propaganda. To add insult to injury, it includes within the category of incitement “expressing support for boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel (commonly referred to as ‘BDS’)” and “claiming or advocating for a ‘right of return’ of refugees into Israel,” as well as “ignoring, denying, or not recognizing the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.”
It is not far-fetched that this outrageous text was written in the halls of the Israeli Knesset and sent by diplomatic pouch to pro-Zionist US senators, who would not have added or deleted a word.
Of course, and it should come as no surprise, the bill is in direct violation of all accepted and universally adopted definitions of refugees, their rights and the legal responsibility that the international community is obliged to provide them under UN conventions and protocols. Once again, American lawmakers are ready to trample on international law when it comes to serving Israeli interests — not that these interests are always aligned with those of the US.
So far, the EU, individual European countries and Japan have stepped in to keep UNRWA going. Together, they are the No. 1 provider of funds to the agency.
But this is not enough. Keeping UNRWA alive should be a primary national security objective of Arab countries as well. The collapse of UNRWA would have an immediate destabilizing effect on Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Beyond that, it would create an enormous humanitarian crisis. Moreover, it would reward Israel as an occupier and speed up the process of liquidating the Palestinian issue; taking up the land and leaving the fate of its people to the region and the world.
In the absence of a fair and lasting settlement to the plight of the Palestinians, killing off UNRWA would not only be stupid and reckless, but would also be dangerous to the stability of the Middle East.