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  • 08:13 - 26 August 2018

How the US is sidelining Palestinian refugees

Kamel Hawwash

There are indications that a truce between Hamas and Israel is close to being concluded, bypassing the Palestinian Authority.

The main commercial access point to Gaza, Kerem Shalom crossing, has been reopened after a period of closure amid recent heightened tensions. But whatever short-term relief this provides for Palestinians in Gaza will not address Palestinians' long-term demands.

The US continues to work on a "peace plan" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without the input of Palestinians. Elements have already been implemented, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and the defunding of services for Palestinian refugees via the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Concealing the occupation

The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has also been arguing that there is no illegal occupation. He wrote to the State Department last December, asking it to drop the terms "occupation" and "Israeli-occupied territories".

He suggested using the term "West Bank," which he described as "more neutral". Friedman is a major donor to the the illegal settlement of Beit El and serves as president of the American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva, the US fundraising arm of a number of institutions in the illegal settlement. He is also known to be against the two-state solution.

The US appears to have turned its focus to 'disappearing' Palestinian refugees from the issues to be resolved. But how can the Americans do this, while still appearing to offer a 'deal of the century'?

It was noticeable that the State Department’s 2017 human rights report replaced references to the "occupied territories" with "Israel," "Golan Heights," "West Bank" or "Gaza".

Friedman does not recognise Palestinian refugees' right of return, enshrined in  UN Resolution 194. His personal view is that "the goal ought to be to enable them to acclimate and to enter society in wherever they landed".

Friedman prefers the UNHCR definition, which does not refer to the descendants of refugees, to the UNRWA definition, which states that "the descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration".

UNRWA began operations in 1950 in response to the needs of about 750,000 Palestinian refugees; today, more than five million are eligible for its services.

'Existential crisis'

The US appears to have turned its focus to "disappearing" Palestinian refugees from the issues to be resolved. But how can the Americans do this, while still appearing to offer a "deal of the century"?

What is emerging is a dual approach, which involves both starving UNRWA of needed funds and removing the issue of refugees altogether. Both are demands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has argued that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue.

The US has gone along with this by slashing $300m in funding to the agency. In a radio interview last month, spokesperson Sami Mushasha said UNRWA was facing an "existential crisis". An effort to raise additional funds, including conferences in Rome and New York, has still left the agency with a deficit of more than $200m, although concerns that Palestinian schools would not open in September have been allayed.

According to Mushasha, the emergency budget for Gaza and the West Bank had almost "disappeared overnight" because of the US cuts. Only life-saving food provisions to Palestinian refugees in Gaza would be funded. UNRWA, which employs 13,000 staff in the occupied Palestinian territories, has cut 113 positions in Gaza and 154 in the West Bank. In the ensuing protests, one Gaza man tried to set himself on fire.

But UNRWA has survived, which could be why the US special envoy for the Middle East, Jared Kushner, has been looking for ways to strip refugees of their status. In internal emails to senior US administration officials, Kushner said: "It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA. This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn't help peace."

Right of return

According to an article in Foreign Policy, Palestinian officials revealed that Kushner pressed Jordan in June "to strip its more than two million registered Palestinians of their refugee status so that UNRWA would no longer need to operate there".

Ali Huweidi, the general manager of a Lebanon-based refugee rights organisation, told MEE that Jordan's Palestinian refugees make up more than 40 percent of the refugees in UNRWA's five areas of operation. If the agency were to cease providing these services, he said, Palestinian refugees would be transferred to UNHCR, which "would then seek to resettle Palestinian refugees in third countries. Once they are granted citizenship, their status as refugees falls."

Both Jordan and Lebanon have rejected moves to transfer the provision of services for Palestinian refugees from UNRWA to host governments. Huweidi noted that Jordan views the agency as "an important strategic partner". Lebanese officials have also indicated that the state could not take on UNRWA's role, particularly in the areas of education and health.

The Palestinian refugees I met on a recent trip to Lebanon all told me that they would not accept anything short of a return to their homes, a sentiment echoed by those participating in Gaza's Great March of Return. Only then will peace come to the holy land.

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