While many of us have been calling Trump’s “deal of the century” dead in the water, he has made an alarming effort to implement his approach in de facto fashion without any party (except Israel) having any input. In other words, without even putting forward a proposal, Trump can create “facts on the ground” which would (he believes) determine the outcome without the Palestinians even realizing it.
This has played out over the past few weeks concerning the fate of UNWRA and the issue of Palestinian refugees. A few weeks ago, the media reported on leaked e-mails from Jared Kushner which exposed not just his hostility toward the UN Palestinian refugee relief body, but his determination to undermine it to the fullest extent possible. This week, the Trump administration has gone one step further: it eliminated $200-million earmarked for Palestinian relief. It has even proposed ending all funding for UNWRA. Currently we donate $350-million which is one-quarter of the agency’s overall budget. It is already hobbled by suspensions of U.S. payments. The end of U.S. funding might put it out of business entirely.
Of course there are nations both in the west and Middle East who could step in and fill the gap the U.S. leaves. But it appears unlikely that they will. They either don’t wish to stand up to Trump, tacitly approve of defanging the Palestinian cause, or just don’t care enough to stop the disaster from happening.
From the Trump-Kushner point of view this is a clever move: it would either wound or kill one of the major thorns in Israel’s side. UNWRA is not only a vital provider of humanitarian relief to millions of Palestinians in five nations in the region, it validates the very notion of refugee status itself. If the UN no longer registers Palestinians as refugees and ceases to offer them assistance, then in effect they will have ceased to exist. They will become someone else’s problem: Syria’s, Lebanon’s, Jordan’s, etc. Israel has sought for decades to foist the refugee problem it created onto the Arab world. This is an adept maneuver that takes it a long way toward that goal.
Further, UN ambassador Nikki Haley has signaled the intention of rejecting the notion of Palestinian refugees and the Right of Return in a speech to the neocon, pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies:
Asked whether the issue should be “off the table,” Haley replied: “I do agree with that, and I think we have to look at this in terms of what’s happening [with refugees] in Syria, what’s happening in Venezuela.”
What Venezuela has to do with Palestine is anyone’s guess. She’s likely referencing the stream of refugees fleeing the collapsing Maduro regime there. Why does a looming catastrophe in Latin America justify eliminating 5-million Palestinian refugees? Because the U.S. wants to shift its funding from UNWRA to Venezuela? Because the Palestinian refugees set a bad precedent for a potential decades-long Venezuela refugee crisis? Who knows?
Like Trump’s precipitous recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, pursuing this new approach would turn 75 years of U.S. policy on its head. Both the U.S. and UN have recognized that Israel created these refugees and has a responsibility to repatriate them under international law. Though both may have sought over time to minimize this right or claim, they never denied it. This is what Trump proposes.
Without UNWRA, the Palestinian claim to a Right of Return is also rendered null and void (in the eyes of Trump and Israel). ROR as a legal and human rights concept is a potentially fatal blow to the vision of a Jewish supremacist state advanced by the Nation State law (aka the Jews-Only law). If hundreds of thousands of Diaspora Palestinian refugees ever achieved the right to return it would likely transform Israel into a democracy with a Palestinian majority. Every Zionist intellectual and leader going back to Ben Gurion, if not earlier, has sought to avoid this outcome like the plague. To dash this potential catastrophe with a few strokes of a budget pen is quite adept. For this and many other reasons, UNWRA must die.
To be clear, even if any of this happens, it will not diminish Palestinian claims or rights. It will not deter Palestinians from asserting those rights. It probably won’t even diminish the power of Palestinian claims among the nations of the world. But it will add yet another stumbling block in the path of Palestinian efforts to realize their destiny as a people and nation. In the ongoing war of attrition that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this is yet another blow by Israel and Trump that they believe will force the Palestinians back on their heels.