By Mustafa Fetouri
When Donald J Trump was three years old the UN General Assembly met a few blocks away from where he was born and adopted Resolution 302. That was in December 1949 and the resolution created the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
That child is now 72 years old, a very rich man, and the 45th President of the United States, however childish he might still sound sometimes. UNRWA, on the other hand, is 69 years old and the target of his anger, criticism, meanness, and frugality. Trump, is, quite simply, not happy with UNRWA and wants it out of the way.
Let’s remember that UNRWA was created to provide humanitarian aid to around 750,000 Palestinians who lost everything to the Zionist militias before and after the creation of the state of Israel in their land. The idea then was very innocent; the Palestinian refugees would soon return to their homes, businesses, and schools, it was believed, so the work of the agency would have been finished decades before Trump even thought about the presidency of his country.
However, none of 750,000 Palestinians have ever gone back home. UNRWA kept expanding because the number of people it cares for increased in number. UNRWA-run refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank grew to cope with ever bigger families. A family of two forced to leave their East Jerusalem home in 1948 is today a family of dozens; the average Palestinian household is estimated at 4.6 people. All are regarded in international law as refugees, even if they were born decades after the original refugee exodus.
UNRWA today provides humanitarian, medical, educational and food aid to 5,266,603 registered Palestinian refugees, as well as shelters. The agency is funded by voluntary donations from UN member states, apart from a core budget provided by the organisation to pay international staff. It continues to operate in the refugee host countries plus the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank.
The agency predates the officially-recognized representative body of the Palestinians, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), by 15 years. Prior to the establishment of the PLO in 1964, the Palestinian people, particularly the refugees, had no one to turn to but UNRWA. I can assure you, though, that not a single Palestinian today is interested in keeping UNRWA purely for nostalgic or emotional reasons; if they could go back to their homes inside historical Palestine today, they will be happy to say thank you and goodbye to the agency.
Over the decades, UNRWA has provided the Palestinians with educational and health programs. Thousands of Palestinian leaders, thinkers, scientists, poets, doctors, and professors have graduated from UNRWA schools; many are now very successful individuals. Had it not been for the agency, what would have become of such individuals? Nevertheless, the majority of them would not mind seeing UNRWA shut down for good should the refugee issue be solved.
It is very easy for UNRWA to be dismantled, though, which would make Trump happy. Simply let all of the 5,266,603 registered Palestinian refugees go home, and within no time at all, there will be no need for UNRWA. Its million-dollar budget will be freed up to help other needy people around the world. Such a move will also change the face of Gaza, as most of its current population are refugees from the rest of Palestine.
However, that simple solution, despite its many advantages, is not possible because the Palestinians’ homes and businesses — more than 530 towns and villages, in fact — were wiped off the map by Israel over the year, to be replaced by homes for Israeli Jewish immigrants. Nobody, not even Donald Trump, let alone their own government, is willing to remove these colonists. Indeed, successive Israeli governments, particularly over the past decade, have encouraged settlers to take ever more Palestinian land and homes. Others have been demolished.
Why is Donald Trump unhappy with UNRWA when there is no alternative being suggested? His adviser on Middle Eastern affairs, son-in-law Jared Kushner, claims that UNRWA is corrupt, keeps expanding, is part of the refugee problem and is irrelevant. Some or all of that might be true, but the issue here is not about the state of UNRWA; the necessity of its existence is what we should be asking about.
This is not the first time that the US has expressed its unhappiness about the UN and its institutions. Washington has withdrawn from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) twice. Just last month, it threatened the International Criminal Court (ICC). Not having the power in those institutions to protect Israel that the US enjoys at the UN Security Council has made successive White House administrations disdainful of the international institutions.
However, UNRWA is different and more serious than all of the other UN bodies. It helps a particular group of people for specific reasons that are directly related to US foreign policy in the region. The issue of the Palestinian refugees is the most difficult to solve if any solution is ever to be found for the situation in Israel-Palestine. The US is preparing to unveil its “deal of the century” for which millions of refugees must be sidelined. The best way to do that, Kushner believes, is by dismantling UNRWA gradually, with the withdrawal of donations as the first step.
Doing away with UNRWA will have political connotations for the PLO and will have direct consequences for the refugees who depend on its services. The Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in particular, are almost entirely dependent on UNRWA schools, healthcare provision and food aid, thanks to the crippling Israeli-led siege. The same is true for refugees in Lebanon and, to a slightly lesser extent, those in Jordan and Syria.
The problem with Trump and his advisers is that they only see part of the basic problem, through a Zionist lens which blanks out the reason why UNRWA was created in the first place. Washington has no answer for what to do with the people served by the agency if it is closed down. More clarity is needed on its part to see the whole picture and be in a position to come up with a much wiser solution than the so-called “deal of the century”.