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Starving the Palestinians to Come to the Israeli Peace Table: A Bad Strategy

posted on: Jan 23, 2019

Starving the Palestinians to Come to the Israeli Peace Table: A Bad Strategy

Typical UNRWA Palestinian Refugee Camp

By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer

A tactic of the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. funding for a United Nations program to help Palestinian refugees can only backfire. In summer of 2018, the U.S. State Department cut funding of $200 million for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to help about five million Palestinian refugees living in settlements in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The Guardian newspaper characterized this policy as “setting fire to the ground.” The cut aims to drive the Palestinians to renew one-sided peace talks and to deny their right to return to lands they lost in 1948.

U.S. Withdrawal of Support for Palestinian Refugees

U.S. support for this impoverished population includes schools, feeding programs, healthcare, and social services. It is a critical piece of the Palestinian refugee lifeblood. The official justification for its reduction in funds is that it pays disproportionately more to UNRWA than other nations. An underlying, not-so-subtle reason is to force Palestinians to the Israeli peace table. The stakes are high for the Palestinians: do they get a state of their own equivalent to the Israeli state or do they remain a subservient population under the occupation of Israel and other nearby Arab states? Furthermore, it is the critical question of Arab sovereignty over its sector of that holiest of cities, Jerusalem.

The U.S. is the largest donor to UNRWA, accounting for almost a third of that agency’s annual budget. One interpretation of this reduction in funds is that the U.S. administration wants to delegitimize the refugee status of the Palestinians and their descendants. In this situation, Palestinians would not have the right to return to their confiscated lands, much less to demand compensation for those lands; a demand for the right to their portion of Jerusalem; and return to the borders of 1967.  

Another hidden rationale for U.S. reduction of support for Palestinian refugees is to diminish their status as claimants to an Arab presence in Jerusalem. The U.S. administration’s move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem confirmed its recognition of Israel’s claim to that city as its capital. Its effect is was to diminish the legitimate Arab right to its share of Jerusalem as a key religious site.

So-Called U.S. “Transactional“ Foreign Policy

The idea here is that the Trump administration wants to use leverage in moving people with whom the U.S. is in negotiation to his point of view. Thus, paraphrased: “starve the Palestinians and they will eventually come to the table and agree to our (the U.S. and Israeli) idea of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.” In contrast, recently-resigned U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Niki Haley, said she believed that the ‘right of return’ of Palestinians to their lands needed to be considered in any negotiations. She has since left the government.

Starving the Palestinians to Come to the Israeli Peace Table: A Bad Strategy

Prime Minister Netanyahu, Trump son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and President Trump decide the fate of Palestine.

However, the Trump administration has perceived that Palestinians have expressed hostility towards the U.S. This is a correct perception, given the totally pro-Israeli-Anti-Palestinian stance of the administration.

The Trump administration knows well that the U.S. contribution to UNRWA is a critical lifeline to the Palestinians living in refugee settlements in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. UNRWA gives assistance to approximately five million refugees. Some of these refugee settlements or camps have existed almost since the time of Israel’s founding in 1948. The inhabitants live in what can safely be called a state of guaranteed poverty, but the U.N. aid nevertheless has consistently provided the children with basic services of schooling, shelter, food, water and sanitation, and certain medical care.

Pain and Suffering of Palestinian Refugees and Possible Greater Conflict in the Middle East

Some Palestinians have suggested that the U.S. aid-cut to the U.N. is a ‘death sentence’ to their people. While such countries as Germany, Japan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have upped their donations to try to fill the gap, there is a chance that the entire infrastructure of the Palestinian settlements could come crashing down. This could lead to the harm of millions of innocents and, more catastrophically, to further conflict and destabilization in the Middle East. At the same time, the security of Israel itself could be undermined.

The Trump administration end to funding of Palestinian refugees is a way of wishing away their status as refugees. Most such refugees, through the support of UNRWA, were born in a tent, raised in a camp, and clothed, fed, and schooled. This scenario has gone on for generations, now for over 70 years. Trump administration criticism of UNRWA is that it perpetuates the status of refugees, thus increasing their numbers from an original base of around 700,000 in 1948 to about 5 million today. Israelis see this population number, many of whom claim the right to return to their ancestral home, as a threat to the “Jewish character” of their country.

Starving the Palestinians to Come to the Israeli Peace Table: A Bad Strategy

Palestinians are dependent on UNRWA support of their school, feeding, shelter and health programs

Israel Sees Defunding of UNRWA as a “Step for Peace”

The Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu, goes as far as to say that UNRWA should be scrapped because of its creation of “fictitious refugees.” Furthermore, Netanyahu has stated that the narrative of the right of return would only lead to the elimination of the state of Israel. Contributing to the political character of the Trump administration’s attempt to eliminate UNRWA was Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s statement that this agency was “not conducive to peace.”

–The safety, health, and welfare of millions of Palestinians who are living in refugee settlements are being played by the Trump administration and the government of Israel in a cruel game of geopolitics. These refugees are pawns, sometimes used by Palestinian leaders who employ them in their quest for a state of their own. Worse, however, is the dismissal of the refugees by Israeli politicians and the Trump administration’s complicity in this effort. By ‘disappearing’ the Palestinians, these politicians deny the existence, much less humanity of the refugees. More so, they believe that in omitting the refugees from the equation of the Arab-Israeli peace process, they can justify their contention that the only possible way to resolve the issue is a one-state versus a two-state solution. Such a short-run solution will never hold up morally, ethically, demographically, much less legally–in the long run.


(References: The Guardian, August 2018; The Washington Post, August 31, 2018; Al-Jazeera, September 2, 2018; and The Jerusalem Post, September 1, 2018)


John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.