On Friday, August 31st the State Department announced its plan to completely defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, better known as UNRWA. The US decision is part of a larger protest against the agency, which has been blamed repeatedly for perpetuating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Proser has described how UNRWA schools have become a “hotbed of incitement” against Israel, Jews and the West. Prosner has also claimed that UNRWA personnel have been caught coordinating with Hamas operatives to build terror tunnels that run beneath the agency’s buildings. These examples are just two among a litany of others that have frustrated the US and motivated lawmakers to finally withdraw dollars from the UN program.
Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, UNRWA was created to carry out direct humanitarian aid and programs for Palestinian refugees. While the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) offers assistance to all refugees throughout the world, UNRWA is uniquely designated to help Palestinians. While both organizations help refugees, their characterizations of refugee are radically different. Unlike UNRWA, the UNHCR does not consider the subsequent generations of those who were originally displaced as “refugees.” UNRWA applies refugee status to those who actually left their homes in 1948 or 1967, as well to all of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. This explains why the $1.2 billion agency supports a ballooning number of Palestinians who are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1848, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” Descendants of the first generation afflicted by the war also qualify to receive UNRWA services which include educational, health, and social programs across the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. While UNWRA was originally responding to the needs of roughly 750,000 Palestinians it is currently doing so for a population that exceeds 5 million people. The agency’s inflated statistics markedly taints the perception of Palestinian life today. While there have been myriad wars and outbursts of violence in the decades since Israel’s establishment, no event has created a new cohort of displaced Palestinians. This notion of a growing refugee demographic gives credence to the muddled understanding of the Palestinian condition. More than 50 percent of those initially displaced by the 1948 war have garnered citizenship in other recognized states, and would otherwise not be delineated refugee status according to any other standard besides that put forward by UNRWA.
The United States is the largest single donor to UNWRA, contributing more than $350 million in 2017. In the midst of its plan to defund UNWRA, the US is looking for alternative organizations to provide medical assistance, education, and food to Palestinians in need. The recent policy directive is only the latest in a series of other punitive actions that have predicated the US’s larger review of its diplomatic and political relations with Palestinian leadership.
In the last year, US policymakers have opposed the current status of UNWRA’s leadership and have blamed other UN member states for failing to provide equal monetary support for the agency. Among them is US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who stated that UNRWA reforms, especially reforms moving to “change the number of refugees to an accurate count,” are conditional for the organization to receive US dollars and support. Building on Haley’s sentiment, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the relief agency an “irredeemably flawed operation” that is built upon an “unsustainable” business model and fiscal practices. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the US decision to withdraw from UNWRA. In a public statement he reproached the organization for being a “refugee-perpetuation agency” that should serve a population “much smaller than the number reported by UNRWA.” The commissioner general of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl, responded to Netanyahu’s criticism with a sharp censure, blaming the international community for prolonging the refugee crisis by not creating a “just and fair and inclusive solution to the conflict.”
Whether the relief agency should support an ever-expanding population of beneficiaries is not only the subject of controversial debate for international legalists and government officials but also for students on university campuses across North America. A core demand of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is the right of all Palestinian refugees—including first generation refugees and their descendants since the end of the 1948 war—to return to their homes and property in what is now Israel proper and the disputed territories. UNRWA originally offered humanitarian support to some 750,000 Palestinians, the incipient number of people displaced when Israel was established. Under UNRWA’s definition of refugee that number has since expanded to more than 5 million Palestinians who now span the region. Israel rejects the demand, claiming that it represents a Palestinian effort “to destroy Israel by weight of numbers.” The influx of millions would compromise Israel’s current standing as a Jewish-majority state and concomitantly introduce a host of political ramifications and uncertainties to the Jewish State. The refugee debate has become an acrimonious point of contention on campus, which Jewish students have continued to deem “unsafe” since the proliferation of BDS over the last decade. Given that the US decision to defund UNRWA was announced at the beginning of the academic school year, it is too soon to tell what responses the policy will merit on campus and whether Jewish students and allies of Israel will deal with any repercussions.
By Hilary Miller