Taking Issues “Off the Table”–First Jerusalem, Now Refugees

Palestinian_Iraqi_IDP_family_near_Jordanian_border

by Lara Friedman

Last month, President Donald Trump granted a cherished wish of American and Israeli hardliners, taking Jerusalem—an issue that the Oslo Agreement stipulated would be resolved only in permanent status negotiations—“off the table.” Now, only weeks later, American and Israeli hardliners are again trembling with anticipation at the possibility that Trump will fulfill another long-held desire: destroying or crippling the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency that supports Palestine refugees across the Middle East.

Many are now arguing, correctly, that undermining UNRWA will threaten an already fragile status quo in the West Bank and Gaza (not to mention Jordan and Lebanon), and thus would be bad for Israel and would have serious humanitarian implications for Palestinians. For these and other reasons, some suggest that the attack on Palestinian aid is a tactical “misstep” by the Trump Administration. These arguments miss the point: with this new approach to UNRWA, undermining the status quo is a feature, not a bug.

The Trump Administration has tied its attack on UNRWA to UN and Palestinian reactions to Trump’s Jerusalem policy shift. Taking to Twitter this week, Trump railed about Palestinian ingratitude for U.S. funding (which is a tiny fraction of what the U.S. provides Israel). U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that funding would be suspended until the Palestinians “return to the negotiating table” – suggesting a new peace framework predicated on blackmailing the Palestinians into accepting Israeli and American diktats.

In reality, the threat to de-fund UNRWA has nothing to do with any of those things, except in an opportunistic sense. What it is really about is further shattering the terms of reference established by the Oslo Agreement and removing from the negotiating agenda another sensitive and explosive permanent status issue. In short, this attack is about taking Palestinian refugees, like Jerusalem, “off the table” – consistent with the view articulated by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, writing in October 2016, when he referred to Palestinian “so-called ‘refugees.’”

The effort to erase Palestinian refugees by gutting UNRWA is nothing new. Dating to the late 1990s, reactionary voices in Israel and the United States (for examples, see the Gatestone Institute and Middle East Forum)—often joined by fellow travelers in Congress—have been making the case that the “solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue should be found not through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but through unilateral action by the United States to re-define Palestinian refugees out of existence.

As I observed previously, this approach won’t work. Palestinians’ self-identification as refugees is grounded in their own experiences, history, and narrative, not permission from UNRWA or anyone else. Dissolving UNRWA or compelling the UN to re-define millions of Palestinians to no longer technically qualify as refugees won’t change that self-definition an iota. Moreover, like Trump’s Jerusalem move, doing so not only won’t make reaching a peace agreement easier in the future, it will make it harder, dictating new terms of reference that are wholly disconnected from the actual issues at the heart of the conflict and that actively obstruct any chance for a resolution.

What of the argument, made sincerely by some and patently insincerely by others, that for the sake of both Palestinian refugees and peace, it would be better to dissolve UNRWA and treat Palestinian refugees like refugees from any other conflict, under the authority of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR)?

Answering this question is a matter of reviewing the options available to UNHCR to resolve the plight of refugees, as helpfully laid out in detail by former UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness in a 2011 interview. Briefly, UNHCR’s preferred option is returning refugees to their home countries. This option is, of course, wholly off the table for Palestinians, because Israel won’t permit it. UNHCR’s second option is settling refugees where they are currently located. This option, too, is off the table for Palestinians, as key host countries like Jordan and Lebanon have political and demographic considerations of their own which powerfully mitigate against formally or permanently absorbing Palestinian refugees. It’s also worth remembering that the West Bank and Gaza, where many Palestinian refugees are located, have been under Israeli occupation for 50 years, and absent a two-state agreement there is no avenue for turning these refugees, or any residents of the West Bank and Gaza, into citizens. UNHCR’s third option is voluntary resettlement of refugees in third countries. This option, too, is not a solution, as Palestinian refugees cannot be forced to re-settle.

What about the argument that UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem by conferring refugee status on descendants of those who lost homes in 1948 and 1967? The resounding answer can be found in today’s news, which reports that 50,000 Rohingya babies are expected to be born in refugee camps this year. All of these babies will have refugee status under UNHCR.

One final note: the political agenda inherent in the efforts to undermine UNRWA is highlighted by the case of another set of self-identified Middle East refugees: Jews who fled or were kicked out of Arab countries during the 20th century, mainly in connection with the birth of the state of Israel. Many of these individuals and their descendants—despite being citizens of Israel (which is, in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “the nation-state of one people, the Jewish people, and no other”), the U.S. or various other countries—today still identify as refugees. Like Palestinians who lost homes in what is today Israel, these Jews don’t rely on the UN to give them permission to do so, or to authorize their claims of dispossession (which, like Palestinian claims, are well-documented) or to approve their right to demand recognition and compensation.

While anti-peace hardliners in the U.S and Israel have constantly attacked Palestinian refugees—as is happening again today—many, including in Congress, have embraced the cause of Jews from Arab lands. Ironically, this embrace has for the most part had nothing to do with bringing justice to Jews from Arab lands; rather, like the attacks on UNRWA, it has been about exploiting them as a tool to—you guessed it—take Palestinian refugees off the table.

Reprinted, with permission, from Huffington Post. Photo: Palestinian Iraqi family, internally displaced inside Iraq.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
avatar

Lara Friedman

Lara Friedman is the President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Prior to coming to FMEP, Lara was the Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now, and before that she was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, serving in Jerusalem, Washington, Tunis and Beirut. Lara is a leading authority on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, with particular focus on the Israeli-Arab conflict, settlements and Jerusalem, and on the role of the U.S. Congress. She frequently briefs Members of Congress, Administration officials, and others in the foreign policy/national security community, and is regularly published in the U.S. and Israeli press. Lara works closely with Jerusalem expert Danny Seidemann and his NGO “Terrestrial Jerusalem,” participates in various Track II Israeli-Palestinian efforts, and is a non-resident fellow at the U.S./Middle East Project (USMEP). She holds a B.A. from the University of Arizona and a Master’s degree from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and speaks French, Spanish, Arabic and (rather poor) Italian.

4 Comments

  1. Don Bacon ,

    The main bulk of refugees , has to do , with the 1948 war in fact ( started by Arabs in fact ) here I quote from Wikipedia for example :

    ” The conflict triggered significant demographic change throughout the Middle East. Around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes in the area that became Israel, and they became Palestinian refugees[20] in what they refer to as Al-Nakba (“the catastrophe”). In the three years following the war, about 700,000 Jews immigrated to Israel with many of them having been expelled from their previous countries of residence in the Middle East.[21] ”

    Look here this title in Wikipedia :

    ” 1948 Arab–Israeli War ”

    Thanks

  2. I don’t get this “peace” and “anti-peace” talk when we have Israel taking over Palestine, dispossessing Palestinians and gaining control of the whole area. It’s being done peacefully, but that doesn’t make it right, and all this talk about foundation for peace and peace now and peace agreement is not helpful. Why do it? The perps just laugh at people talking abut peace while they are destroying Palestinian property and driving the occupants into the desert, peacefully.
    We should be focusing on the wrongful creation of refugees, not the funding for them, and it has nothing to do with war and peace. The refugees are not created by a conflict, but by the Jews taking what doesn’t belong to them. Why can’t we be honest about it?

  3. Thanks for that post , the issue of refugees , is indeed very complicated , but , taking it off the table , by cutting off financial aid to Unrwa agency , is not really per se the issue . This is because , Trump , has strict and coherent philosophy , and that is using money as leverage . As such , he has threaten recently , to cut off also , the financial aid to the Palestinian authority itself , and then , there would be ” no table ” even to take off from it nothing indeed , and he seems to comply with it , here I quote for example from :

    ” The times of Israel ” , bearing the title :

    ” Trump threatens to cut off US aid to Palestinians over Jerusalem dispute”

    One can read him arguing :

    “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace…..why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

    End of quotation :

    The same has been done by him , concerning Unesco agency for example (World Heritage Centre ) .

    Thanks

  4. Trump apparently wants to give fanatical Zionists everything they want, with no concessions to the Palestinians.

Comments are closed.