The US administration’s campaign against the United Nations Relief and Work Agency in the Near East (UNRWA) is undoubtedly the most serious threat facing the Palestinian refugees since the 1948 war that led to the partition of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel (Nakba or Catastrophe). In fact, the campaign amounts to an existential threat to more than 5 million refugees registered with the agency, with the eventual aim of settling the refugees in places of their residences.
In 1948 the world faced its first major international crisis after the Second World War: the plight of Palestinian refugees as the majority of the Palestinian population at the time were forced to flee their homes in historic Palestine to neighbouring countries.
Hence, UNRWA was founded in December 8, 1949 to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees who were dispersed into Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza Strip and the West Bank. These refugees totally depend on whatever little UNRWA provides in vital areas of their life such as health care, basic education, food and casual work.
The US move to cut UNRWA funding is a major assault on Palestinian refugees. The aim of this multi-pronged war through diplomatic, legal (through the US Congress to hamper future administrations) and financial fronts, is to take the Palestinian issue off the table before any future settlement with Israel, the so-called “Deal of the Century”. President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, are spearheading this assault.
The war continues
The latest assault on UNRWA began in December 2017 with Kushner’s attempts to dismantle the agency. He put in place a plan for immediate action that included major cuts to UNRWA. In January 2018 the US administration announced slashing $125 million (Dh458.8 million), the first instalment of its annual contribution to the agency (30 per cent of the total), by more than half. [The top five contributors are: US $360 million, EU $150 million, Saudi Arabia $145 million, Germany and UK $70 million].
Around two weeks ago, the White House announced that the US will terminate its contribution to UNRWA’s budget with immediate effect citing “irredeemably flawed operation”; the news shocked the world, particularly the Middle East.
Ambassador Friedman blindly attacked UNRWA in a press conference describing it as “a critically damaged organisation since it does not promote regional peace and perpetuates the conditions that make peace more difficult. [Therefore…], the US does not see how another investment in it will restore its value properly for the US taxpayer.”
This is a blatant attempt to bend the truth and deliberately confuse the facts to immorally mobilise American public opinion against Palestinians. Firstly, UNRWA’s mandate as its name indicates is clearly focused on the humanitarian aspect of the Palestinian issue not the political one. Secondly, it is the responsibility of the world community and the UN Security Council, where the US is among the five permanent members that hold the powerful veto, to maintain regional peace, and not the UNRWA.
Since 1970, US administrations have used the weapon of veto to protect Israel. When US vetoed a draft resolution that rejected Donald Trump’s decision to recognise [occupied] Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, it marked the 43rd time the Washington has used it on matters related to Israel.
The only exception was in 2016 while president Barack Obama was still in office, when the US abstained from a vote on the expansion of Israeli colonies in Palestine occupied territories. That was the first time in four decades that a Security Council resolution condemning Israel was passed.
However, UNRWA, like many other UN organisations, is not perfect and it requires regular reviews with the aim of reforming it by quickly trimming its swelling bureaucracy. The agency has always been under Israeli and American pressure to hinder its operations in the occupied territories. I have first hand experience of directly working for this agency in 2003-2004 as senior adviser for external relations. UNRWA’s capable Commissioner General at the time, Peter Hansen (from Denmark), had to courageously face up to Israeli authority’s attempts to humiliate him by blocking his car from crossing the borders to UNRWA Gaza HQ at the infamous Erez border post. He would often get out of his car and cross the borders on foot.
Hansen, who was critical of Israel’s aggressive policy, did not last in his job and found his tenure mysteriously terminated in 2004 by the then UN Secretary-General, the late Kofi Annan. Israel had called for his resignation and responding to the Israeli requests the US pressurised Annan to take action. Hansen was replaced by his American deputy Karen Koning in 2005 without any explanation.
The current diplomatically diabolic attempts by the American ambassador and Kushner is to make the issue of refugees ‘disappear’ from any discussion over any settlement by killing off UNRWA. But, making this agency redundant won’t necessarily solve the refugee problem. Kushner-Friedman’s approach according to the Washington-based Palestinian Policy Network, Al Shabaka, aims at “stamping out Palestinian claims to sovereignty and repatriation — a right afforded to refugees worldwide.”
Refugees, colonies and occupied Jerusalem are integral issues towards finding a negotiated “solution” to the conflict according to international law. The right of return to Palestine is no longer an option if UNRWA is abolished or squeezed out of existence one way or another. And with the recognition of [occupied] Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the latest declaration of the so-called Jewish Nation-State Law, all what’s left to negotiate will be limited to determine the number of Jewish colonies that would remain on Occupied Territories. Kushner-Friedman and their Israeli politician, Benjamin Netanyahu, believe this policy will make it easier to impose the surrender agreement (deal of the century) on the Palestinians.
Mustapha Karkouti is a columnist and former president of the Foreign Press Association, London. Twitter: @mustaphatache