A recent report in the French newspaper Le Monde accused the United Arab Emirates and Israel of collaborating to eliminate the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), with no resolution of the refugee issue in sight. But experts on Israel and the Emirates say they doubt this is actually occurring.
A Palestine refugee, according to UNRWA, is one “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,” as well as the descendants of male refugees. Few of the original refugees, estimated to number around 700,000 people, are still alive, but their descendants now number approximately 5 million. Those eligible to receive services from the agency live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
UNRWA has for many years been plagued by accusations of politicization, mismanagement and corruption, which came to a head with a scathing UN ethics report, leading to the resignation of UNRWA’s head, Pierre Krähenbühl, in November 2019.
The agency has been in financial trouble since reports of 2018, when US President Donald Trump cut Washington’s support by 83%, eliminating $300 million from its $360 million commitment to the organization. In 2019, the Trump Administration cut its remaining $60 million allocation, so that UNRWA no longer received any funding from its once-largest donor.
The Netherlands, Switzerland, and New Zealand also suspended their funding in light of the reported ethics violations.
Other than giving money to an alternative agency or source of support for the refugees, who definitely require international support, I don’t think the UAE is going to want to do much to join the bandwagon against UN refugee services
Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that, despite the Le Monde report, he doubted that Israel and the UAE were cooperating to eliminate UNRWA.
“I don’t see why the UAE would want to go along with this or how it would benefit, except insofar as it is enjoying a honeymoon with Israel right now and would want to appear to be cooperative in all things, generally,” he said. “But other than giving money to an alternative agency or source of support for the refugees, who definitely require international support, I don’t think the UAE is going to want to do much to join the bandwagon against UN refugee services.”
“UNRWA has proven very resilient over the years because there really isn’t any alternative, and I don’t see one emerging from the UAE-Israel relationship either,” he said.
Ibish added: “Israel has been looking to discredit, defund and attack this UN agency for decades as a means of discrediting Palestinian refugee claims and therefore escaping any concessions that might be necessary on that issue. Israel’s preferred tactic has been to argue that it just doesn’t exist, more than that it has to be addressed in a serious way. I think it’s aspirational on the Israeli side and a matter of humoring Israel on the UAE side and overblown fears on the Palestinian side.”
Refugees are one of the main problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the UAE doesn’t have any standing in this dispute. To work with Israel against the refugees will harm the Emirates
Dr. Shaul Yanai, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that “until now, it was in Israel’s interest to keep the UNRWA because it is a relief agency that provides jobs and food for refugees, mainly in the Gaza Strip.” However, Yanai said, “since America and President Trump stopped the aid, UNRWA became a less efficient organization. I am not sure this organization can survive.”
According to Yanai, the funding cessation has been spurred by a fundamental change in the nature of the agency and that figuring out what to do with the refugees “is a political problem, not an economic one.”
“Officials in Israel, the United States and other places think that UNRWA became not just a relief agency for the refugees, but an agency that keeps refugees in the camps without solving their problems for the first [through] fourth generation,” Yanai said, noting that UNRWA’s definition of refugees includes people who were displaced before the State of Israel was created in 1948.
“UNRWA became a political agency. … Israel and other states in the Middle East think that the refugee problem cannot be solved by the right of return,” he added, referring to the idea that Palestinians have a right to return to their home in what is now the State of Israel.
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“The dilemma is how to help the refugees, to build them homes and jobs, in the places they are living … or keep them as refugees for the next 100 years,” Yanai said.
He does not believe that the Emirates and Israel are working together to get rid of UNRWA because the Emirates would face too many negative consequences.
“Refugees are one of the main problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the UAE doesn’t have any standing in this dispute. To work with Israel against the refugees will harm the Emirates,” Yanai said. “Any Arab state that will side with Israel on this one will have many problems.”
The UAE and Israel established official ties in what is known as the Abraham Accords, signed on September 15 in Washington.
Regional developments are political and should not affect the international commitment to the rights and well-being of Palestine refugees, which is the baseline of UNRWA’s mandate and work
Sami Mshasha, director of communications at UNRWA, responded to the accusation that the UAE and Israel were working to get rid of UNRWA.
“The UAE has been a consistent supporter of UNRWA over the years, and a top donor in 2018 ($50 million), in the aftermath of the US defunding. In 2020, funding from regional supporters has decreased significantly,” he said in a statement to The Media Line.
“UNRWA is currently engaged in serious discussions with the UAE about its future support to Palestine refugees. Worth noting is that UNRWA’s commissioner-general went on a formal mission to Abu Dhabi in November and is planning another visit there early in 2021,” the statement said.
“UNRWA keeps urging all member-states that voted for the extension of its mandate overwhelmingly last year to honor that political commitment and translate it into funding that will allow all services to Palestine refugees to continue. Regional developments are political and should not affect the international commitment to the rights and well-being of Palestine refugees, which is the baseline of UNRWA’s mandate and work,” according to the statement.
The UAE is the chair of the UNRWA Advisory Commission this year, Mshasha noted.
Hebrew University’s Yanai says that there are three central problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a Palestinian state; control over Jerusalem; and the refugees.
“To solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you have to solve all three problems,” he said.