Why the Trump Administration Suspended UNRWA Funding

September 14, 2018
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By: Dr. Osama Abuirshaid, AMP National Policy Director

A version of this article was first published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, in Doha, Qatar. 

Following weeks of internal debate, the Trump administration decided on August 31, 2018 to cease funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The Agency provides important services to Palestinian refugees — most significantly, education. UNRWA also embodied the recognition by the international community, which sanctioned the establishment of the state of Israel on Palestinian lands, of its responsibility toward Palestinian refugees, to whom it granted the right of return but never obligated Israel to enforce this right.

In early 2018, the Trump administration decided to cut US annual aid to the agency from $365 million to $125 million a year, of which only $60 million has been provided in 2018. US funding for the agency previously accounted for one-third of its annual budget of $1.24 billion, which has a dramatic impact on the lives of millions of Palestinian refugees dependent on UNRWA services in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. But Trump’s main objective remains political: the liquidation of the Palestinian refugee issue, beginning with refuting its existence. This decision comes in the context of an American-Israeli policy which seeks to reach a final settlement in the conflict by unilaterally eliminating the Palestinian cause. In December 2017, Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, transferring the US Embassy in May 2018. In July 2018, the Israeli Knesset adopted the Jewish Nation State law, which granted Jewish citizens of Israel alone the right to self-determination.

The decision to suspend UNRWA funding was accompanied by further measures taken by the Trump administration to withhold $200 million in relief, medical and development aid that was supposed to be disbursed this year in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In its latest decision, the US administration argued that there was no national interest in spending that amount in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip[1], especially in light of the alleged "Palestinian hostility" toward the United States[2]. But the administration has since gone public with its strategy to apply economic pressure on the Palestinians, pushing them to accept the ideas of the president's Middle East adviser and son in-law, Jared Kushner, and his allies on the extreme Israeli right.

Lead-up to the Decision

The decision to cut US funding for UNRWA was no surprise. The White House announced in early 2018 that the annual US subsidy would be reduced by about two-thirds, and only about one-sixth was actually disbursed. In August 2018, Foreign Policymagazine revealed leaked emails explaining how Kushner had pressed other administration officials to engage in "an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA."[3]According to US media reports, the decision to stop funding UNRWA took place during a meeting between Kushner and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley played an important role in adopting the resolution[4]. Kushner and Haley are the leading proponents of the resolution despite opposition from the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies, which have warned that the region is sliding into violence as a result of aid cuts. Both Kushner and Haley argued that UNRWA had created a state of "dependency" among the Palestinians, and that their insistence on the right of return contradicted the fact that the State of Israel was the "state of the Jewish people" and perpetuated the conflict, thus impeding the ability to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians[5]. The Trump administration informed regional countries of its decision to stop funding to UNRWA weeks before its announcement and pressed refugee host countries, such as Jordan, to resettle Palestinian refugees on its territory in exchange for direct US financial aid, which Jordan rejected.

Official Reasons for the Decision

The Trump administration provided three reasons to justify the decision to halt its funding of UNRWA:

The Trump administration claims that UNRWA contributes to the ceaseless Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The insistence of the Palestinians on the right to return to the lands and homes they fled in 1948, in accordance with the provisions of international resolutions, specifically UN Security Council Resolution 194, completely contradicts a "Jewish" Israel, and thus impedes any possibility of achieving "peace" between the parties. This administration believes that the survival of UNRWA will continue to fuel the Palestinian insistence on the right of return.

The Trump administration accuses UNRWA of exaggerating[6]the number of Palestinian refugees and officially endorses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's argument that "the perpetuation of the dream of bringing the descendants back to Jaffa is what sustains this conflict. UNRWA is part of the problem not part of the solution”[7]. Kushner and Haley and other Trump officials believe that the definition of a Palestinian refugee is a real obstacle to peace between Palestinians and Israel. Jay Sekulow, a lawyer and former Trump adviser, wrote in Foreign Policy that UNRWA had changed the definition of "refugee," since the Palestinians were the only refugee population in the world to be granted refugee status on the basis of descent, contrary to the provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as he alleges[8]. However, the United Nations defines refugees as those driven from their homes by war, persecution or violence. This includes their children and grandchildren, as long as the displacement continues. All refugees registered with the United Nations maintain an internationally recognized "right of return" to their lands and homes[9]. Accordingly, UNRWA considers Palestinian refugee status to be inherited. As a result, since its founding in 1949, UNRWA has included children and grandchildren, even if they have other nationalities, living in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon or in the West Bank and Gaza Strip[10], with more than five million registered. The Trump administration is calling on UNRWA to cap the number of Palestinians considered refugees to a maximum of half a million persons, or 10 percent of UNRWA’s current refugee population [11]. Israel and officials in the Trump administration are pressing to transfer the responsibility for this 10% to UNHCR, like other refugees and displaced persons.

Trump's administration believes that UNRWA's mandate and financial practices cause more harm than good and thus concluded that the United States would not make additional contributions to UNRWA [12].

Objectives

The Trump administration aims to neutralize what it sees as an "obstacle" to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, as it has already done with Jerusalem. According to Trump, his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the transfer of the US embassy to the city, has “taken Jerusalem off the table”. He said, “every time there were peace talks, they never got past Jerusalem becoming their capital, so I said let’s take it off the table” [13]. In other words, the Trump approach is based on removing the core and central issues that define the conflict and fall within the so-called "final status issues,” rendering issues such as Jerusalem and the right of return unnegotiable and moot.

By neutralizing the Jerusalem question and attempting to do the same with the refugee issue, in total agreement with Israel, the parameters of the Trump plan to liquidate the Palestinian cause, in what he has called the "deal of the century", have become clear. This is especially so given Israel's ramped-up settlement construction within the major settlement blocs in the West Bank, as well as in the Jerusalem region, including Area E1, which links Jerusalem with the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim and would end any Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank. Israel's relentless attempts to expel the inhabitants of Khan al-Ahmar, east of Jerusalem, reinforce this endgame. Contrary to the traditional US line, this White House has refrained from criticizing Israel's efforts to intensify settlements and swallow up Palestinian land [14] ,and can only be understood as US acquiescence to these Israeli colonialist efforts. Moreover, Israel, with American cover, continues to reject any negotiations over the Palestinian control over the borders between the West Bank and Jordan.

It seems that Trump is, in fact, practicing what he preaches and following through on his promises to Israel. He does not abide by the formula of a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, but rather cuts the "deal of the century" with negotiations on unlimited imaginary borders within the West Bank, with no offer of sovereignty for the Palestinians. In fact, Trump is actively seeking to besiege the Palestinians by cutting off the lifeline that UNRWA represents to millions of Palestinian refugees with the aim of forcing them to accept the “great deal" he intends for them[15]. He also seeks to alleviate what he sees as financial burdens borne by the United States, and to hand over the responsibility of funding UNRWA to the rich Arab Gulf states. He will use this to pressure the Palestinians into returning to the negotiating table under US-Israeli conditions, as his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has hinted[16].

Conclusion

Trump's decision to suspend UNRWA funding reflects the end of a US policy that has endured for seven decades, during which the United States committed itself to providing about a third of the Agency's budget to help the Palestinian people displaced by Israel from their homeland. Washington played a central role in the establishment of the Agency, to be exclusively concerned with providing assistance to the Palestinian people pending a peaceful solution. Indeed, the main goal of the United States was to calm the refugee issue and keep it under anesthesia so as not to explode. Trump overturned this policy and turned it into a tool of pressure in settling this issue. Trump and his aides have calculated this decision without considering possible serious consequences. Rather, they are pandering to the ruling right-wing coalition in Israel and the US. The interruption of UNRWA's educational, health and relief assistance to millions of Palestinians could lead to a new eruption of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as the destabilization of host countries receiving assistance from UNRWA, namely Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. This particular fear has prompted countries such as Germany and Japan to announce their intention to increase their aid to UNRWA, but they are unlikely to be able to cover the deficit left by the US withdrawal. In any case, the United States and Israel will not succeed in neutralizing the Palestinian refugee problem, nor in aborting the Palestinians' aspirations for the right of return. As long as there is occupation and displacement, this right and the aim to realize it will persevere.

[1] Department Press Briefing,” The State Department, 8/28/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/tVyiNb

[2] Karen DeYoung, Ruth Eglash and Hazem Balousha, “U.S. ends aid to United Nations agency supporting Palestinian refugees,” The Washington Post, 8/31/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/DRzWL4

[3] Colum Lynch & Robbie Gramer, “Trump and Allies Seek End to Refugee Status for Millions of Palestinians,” Foreign Policy, 3/8/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/BoEYVn

[4] Clare Foran & Elise Labott, “US ends all funding to UN agency for Palestinian refugees,” CNN, 9/1/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/DJZDcM

[5] Colum Lynch, “U.S. to End All Funding to U.N. Agency That Aids Palestinian Refugees,” Foreign Policy, 8/28/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/LqL8pn

[6] “U.S. envoy Haley questions Palestinian refugee numbers,” Reuters, 8/28/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/BJuesG

[7] Clare Foran & Elise Labott. Ibid.

[8] Jay Sekulow, “UNRWA Has Changed the Definition of Refugee,” Foreign Policy, 8/17/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/yuUhWj

[9] Karen DeYoung, Ruth Eglash and Hazem Balousha. Ibid.

[10] “Palestine refugees,” UNRWA, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/bB6fmr

[11] Trump to Demand Recognized Palestinian Refugees Be Capped at Tenth of Current Number, Report, Haaretz, 8/25/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/9hTFhX

[12] “Department Press Briefing.”

[13] “Trump: Israel will pay 'higher price' for his Jerusalem recognition,” Ynet, 8/22/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/hEJNqx

[14] Jack Khoury, “Defunding UNRWA Is an Example of Trump’s ‘Peace’ Plan,” Ha’aretz, 9/2/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/aRhY8U

[15] Neve Gordon, “UNRWA and Trump's attempt to erase the Palestinian people,” Aljazeera, 9/3/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at: https://goo.gl/SPTmU9

[16] “U.S. envoy Haley questions Palestinian refugee numbers,” Reuters, 8/28/2018, accessed on 9/9/2018, at:https://goo.gl/gXHsNA