Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1408, (6 - 12 September 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1408, (6 - 12 September 2018)

Ahram Weekly

US attempts to scrap Palestinian right of return

The US has ended its funding of UNRWA, the international agency supporting over five million Palestinian refugees who represent a cornerstone of the Palestinian question. Amira Howeidy reports 



US attempts to scrap Palestinian right of return
US attempts to scrap Palestinian right of return

The United States has decided to immediately halt its funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), describing the organisation as “irredeemably” flawed.

The decision follows a move in January to slash US funds to UNRWA by half in a sign that it was no longer willing to be the largest single donor to the agency.

In 2017, the US provided UNRWA — which provides healthcare, education, relief and social services to 5.4 million registered Palestinian refugees in Gaza the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon — with $364 million.

Beyond the budget gap itself and failure to mobilise adequate and appropriate burden sharing, the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years are “simply unsustainable”, the organisation “in crisis mode for many years”, the US State Department said in a statement.

The decision came as a surprise to UNRWA which said that the agency and the US renewed a funding agreement in December 2017 “which had acknowledged the successful, dedicated and professional management of the agency”.

The UN agency, formed by the UN General Assembly in 1949 in the wake of the occupation of Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948, was mandated with providing services to some 700,000 Palestinian refugees who were displaced until a political solution was met. 

Its mandate continued to be renewed by the General Assembly (most recently extending it until 30 June 2020) since then, even as peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians began over the past 20 years but left out the issue of Palestinian refugees.

The decision to end funding of UNRWA follows a series of actions by the Trump administration that break from US foreign policy traditions and its perceived role as peace broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Earlier this year, the US recognised Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel and announced its decision to move its embassy there. And in June, it withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) citing “chronic bias against Israel”.

In 2017, the US pulled out of UNESCO, the UN cultural, scientific and educational organisation, accusing it of anti-Israel bias.

The move against UNRWA, the UN organ that is almost as old as the Palestinian question and continues to exist because of more than five million Palestinian refugees registered with it, has been perceived as an attempt by the Trump administration to make it irrelevant, even if the shortfall will be covered by other UN member states.

The US knows that it can’t end UNRWA’s mandate by a UN general assembly resolution which is why it is intensifying its efforts to sabotage the agency in order to turn it into a useless nominal entity,” said Palestinian rights activist Nedal El-Ezza.

What the US is effectively doing, he added, is rewrite the definition of what constitutes a Palestinian refugee to deny more than five million people from their right to return home. "In the eyes of US and Israel, UNRWA is a Palestinian political victory manifested in the international consensus that acknowledges the specifity of the Palestinian refugee problem which distinguishes it from all other refugee cases."

UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict."

On one level, the US is ending an era. Its role in funding UNRWA started in 1950 when then US president Harry Truman felt a sense of responsibility for creating the refugee problem in supporting the 1947 UN partition plan (allocating 55 per cent of historic Palestine to a Jewish state and 43 per cent to an Arab state, which was rejected by Palestinians and Arabs) and immediately recognising Israel’s creation in 1948 on Palestinian land.

According to Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy, Truman regretted his support for Israel. His peace envoy, Mark Ethridge, regularly “butted with Israeli leaders over the refugee crisis”. Israel bore “particular responsibility for those who have been driven out by terrorism, repression and forcible ejection”, Elgindy wrote on Twitter.

Truman himself complained that he was “rather disgusted with the manner in which the Jews are approaching the refugee problem”.

The US voted in December 1948 for the General Assembly’s Resolution 194, resolving that: “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

The resolution serves as the foundation of the Palestinian right of return. The 700,000 Palestinians dispossessed by Israel have since grown to 5.4 million registered with UNRWA. By declining to fund the agency that underscores the legitimacy of the Palestinian right of return, the Trump administration  — which seeks to adopt the Israeli vision for ending the conflict while maintaining the religious purity of Israel as a Jewish state — refuses to recognise this right.

“Truman, Eisenhower and JFK (John F Kennedy) all acknowledged Palestinian refugees as the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict. All three pressed Israel to accept responsibility for the refugee problem and some form of repatriation — even as they pushed for resettlement via economic development for the bulk of refugees,” said Elgindy.

“The US paid UNRWA funds to protect Israel from the consequences of its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians,” said Salman Abu Sitta, a scholar on Palestine and author of the Atlas of Palestine. “The shortage of funds now should be paid from the revenues Israel collected from the looted Palestinian properties according to UN Resolution A/72/83” of 8 December 2017.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunenra said the UN agency’s present shortfall is $217 million which can keep the agency's chools open only till the end of September.

“We need to go back to basics,” he said. Unlike the UNHCR, which deals with all refugees on the planet, UNRWA is not the “other” UN refugee agency.

“This is a UN agency that’s specifically mandated to give a specific service to a specific people because of the specifics of their history. We cannot lose sight of that. Which is why we will continue with our mandate.”

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