JERUSALEM — The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known by the tongue-twisting acronym UNWRA, is a unique, bewildering institution. Established in December 1949, it was originally tasked with assisting some 750,000 Palestinians displaced by the war of 1948. Today it provides education, medical services, and other assistance to their descendants scattered across the region: some 5 million people.
It is the largest United Nations agency, employing over 30,000 people, 99 percent of whom are Palestinians hired in one of the agency’s areas of responsibility: Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
So huge is the expanse UNRWA covers that it leads to a significant, unanswered question: if Donald Trump ceases American funding, as his recent tweet and his United Nations ambassador have suggested may be the case, will the principal effect be felt by the Palestinian Authority—or by the other countries on the list, and, indeed, by Israel?
A bit of history:
When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (the UNHCR) was established in 1950, it was charged with providing services to every sort of refugee except the Palestinians, with the specific goal of helping these other refugees lose their refugee status by integration into communities in their host countries, resettlement in a third country or, when possible, repatriation.
This was not the case with UNRWA, whose operation has the feel of some sort of a grand enterprise, or the advocacy engine behind a social cause, aiding people who by and large were not accepted by host countries and for whom repatriation remains a cherished but almost certainly unattainable goal. Their fate has become, essentially, contingent on a permanent peace between Arabs and Israelis, and despite the Trump administration's grand plans, that is nowhere in sight.
"UNWRA IS UNIQUE IN TERMS OF its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees,” its website explains. “It has contributed to the welfare and human development of four generations of Palestine refugees,” defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”
The definition of a Palestinian refugee concludes with the mysterious: “The descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration.”
Chris Gunness, the public face of UNRWA, defines himself on Twitter as “UNRWA Spokesman advocating for Palestine refugees to enjoy all their rights to the full, including the right to a just & durable solution.”
Any solution, it is understood, is one that will be achieved through negotiations among states, not through the good offices of UNRWA. And in the meantime—almost 70 years—it has come to act as something of a shadow administrative and governmental authority for Palestinians, parallel to the actual government controlling the area in which 59 refugee camps still fester, 70 years after the war.
On Wednesday Gunness told reporters UNRWA had not received any notification from Trump administration.
But the proverbial handwriting appears to be on the wall.
Back last June U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley defended UNRWA. “I will say there’s also good that comes out of UNRWA: What they do with the schools and healthcare. You do see value in it,” she argued before American legislators skeptical about the usefulness of the almost $400 million the United States provides annually to the organization, which is more than 40 percent of the its funding.
Six months later, Haley seems to have lost patience. After Trump's announcement that the United States would move its embassy to Jerusalem, a U.N. vote massively condemned the American posture as an unnecessary obstacle to peace talks. The Palestinians said they would not negotiate in a process dictated by the Americans, who could no longer be trusted as intermediaries.
On Tuesday, when asked specifically about UNRWA funding at a press conference at the U.N. headquarters in New York, Haley replied that President Donald Trump “doesn't want to give any additional funding until the Palestinians agree to come back to the negotiation table.”
Referring to Trump’s ongoing if halting efforts at advancing a peace plan for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Haley said, “We're trying to move for a peace process, but if that doesn't happen, the president is not going to continue to fund that situation.”
Adding to the atmosphere of a growing crisis, an irritable Trump then tweeted that “we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
The White House declined to explain Trump’s Tuesday tweets.
“The president is a master deal-maker and is as committed to trying to achieve the ultimate peace deal as ever but he will not tolerate falsehoods being spread about America and our positions—and he certainly will not spend taxpayer dollars to subsidize those who spread them,” a White House official told The Jerusalem Post.
“In the meantime, we remain hard at work on our comprehensive peace plan which will benefit both Israelis and Palestinians and will be unveiled when it is ready and the time is right.”
Israeli and Palestinian officials report not having seen even a trace of Trump’s plan.
Precisely which funding Trump intends to cut remains unclear. In total, annual American donations to Palestinians approach $800 million a year, divided almost equally between American-run development schemes and UNWRA.
According to a Congressional report issued in December 2016, that since 1994, when the Palestinian Authority was established, the United States has contributed an average of $400 million a year to numerous projects, the vast majority of which operate under the aegis of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID.)
In 2017, America was slated to invest $363 million in the Palestinian territories. Only $36 million was destined directly to the Palestinian Authority—to support its security apparatus.
IN RECENT YEARS UNWRA has become the target of Palestinian anger for its failure to materially improve the lives of Palestinians. In Gaza, its offices have been blocked and attacked and some European employees threatened over continuing electricity failures and the supposedly “lavish” lifestyle (by Gaza standards) of the non-Palestinian bosses.
UNRWA is faulted for administering essential services to 5 million Palestinians while conserving, rather than transforming, their predicament, and has become, in a sense, the Mideast version of a longtime boyfriend you can’t bear to leave, but can’t bear to live with.
Speaking to Jewish Insider, an American publication, Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said that UNRWA has been a source of frustration “because of its role in perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem” rather than finding ways to rehabilitate their refugee status.
But Shapiro then pointed out an ironic truth: Israel is the country with the worst boyfriend problem of all.
“On each occasion, the Israeli government has quietly been among the most influential advocates in getting Congress eventually to release the funds. For all the legitimate frustrations, that aid serves Israeli—and U.S.—interests, by helping maintain the stability of the Palestinian Authority and providing for the legitimate needs of Palestinian refugees. Without it, Israel's security could be harmed by the collapse of the PA, and Israel would have to take on the burdens of providing for refugees' needs that UNRWA currently does. In an honest dialogue between Israel and the Trump Administration, I would expect similar issues to be raised, and for the lion's share of that assistance to continue, while still trying to use it for leverage to get the Palestinians to negotiate and address other concerns.”
This was fleshed out in an exceptionally revealing series of Tweets posted by recently retired Israeli army spokesman LTC (ret) Peter Lerner.
“There are many problems with @UNRWA, but cutting financial support to the organization hurts the weakest members of Palestinian society and is unlikely to bring the Palestinian Authority to the table. @nikkihaley What is the expected outcome?” he asked.
“The refugee camps have historically been hotbeds for terrorist activities, weakening this population will only lead to more extremism and violence. This will not contribute to security or stability in the region,” Lerner continued.
“UNRWA Facts in the West Bank and Gaza beyond politics:
363 Schools with 311,071 students.
65 health facilities
5.2 million patient visits.
134,404 that recipients of a social safety net.”
Finally, addressing Haley with an uncomfortable truth, Lerner said, of Trump’s plan, “Nice, but at what price? and will this make Israel safer and more secure? Will it collapse an already failed Palestinian economy? Who will be stuck with the problem? All questions that need to be answered.”
In an even starker Thursday Op-Ed, Lerner said that withdrawing American funds from UNRWA “will fuel more violence against Israelis.”
Having made his patriotic case on Israel’s behalf, Lerner, a career army officer, was then set upon by the self-designated pro-Israeli hordes, who argued for Trumpian retribution against Palestinian insolence.