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If UNWRA Folds, What Next?
UNWRA employees and their families protest job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City last month. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

If UNWRA Folds, What Next?

The Trump administration has announced severe cuts to the agency that helps Palestinian refugees, raising questions about who or what could fill the void

As the Trump administration lays the groundwork for its long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, one element of it appears certain: a desire to greatly weaken or close down entirely UNRWA, the agency that provides social and educational services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, and surrounding countries.

On Friday, the U.S. government announced it will slash more than $200 million in aid to the Palestinians, including funding for UNRWA. This is on top of Washington’s previous cuts to the agency’s budget.

It is also no secret that Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior Middle East envoy, has been trying to persuade Arab countries hosting Palestinians to strip them of their refugee status and integrate them into their societies, thus rendering UNRWA obsolete.

By undermining UNRWA, the Trump administration appears to be pursuing a kind of slash and burn policy whereby contentious core issues such as the “right of return”—the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel—are simply taken off the table in the hope of resetting the parameters of future negotiations.

Thus far, the Trump administration appears to be firmly on the side of Israel, given its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital late last year. On the issue of UNWRA, Kushner and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu seem to be in lockstep, given the latter’s repeated calls to “dismantle” the agency.

Israeli officials have stated that if Palestinian refugees and their descendants would return en masse to Israel, such an influx would amount to a war on the Jewish-majority state via demographic means.
Nevertheless, Trump warned Israel earlier this month that Israel will pay a “high price” in peace negotiations for these concessions.

Analysts are now asking about the ramifications of closing down UNWRA if the U.S. succeeds in shuttering the agency.

Earlier this week, high-ranking Israeli sources in the defense establishment said that Washington’s apparent efforts to weaken UNWRA could create a dangerous vacuum in the provision of basic services and schooling. In such a scenario, they warned, Hamas, the Gaza-based terrorist organization, could expand its influence, thereby greatly endangering Israel’s security.

Dr. Einat Wilf, a former Israeli parliamentarian and author of The War for Return, contended to The Media Line that “the only reason UNRWA provides services is to keep alive the idea that Palestinians are refugees from Palestine.”

She explained that in the West Bank, where UNRWA operates, the agency’s services could be easily provided by other entities such as the Palestinian Authority. Jordan could also offer schooling and health services for refugees, many of whom have already become Jordanian citizens. In Syria and Lebanon, where Wilf contended the number of the refugees is highly inflated, these countries could also step up and offer services.

When asked about the idea of closing down UNRWA and shifting its services under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—which handles refugee problems throughout the world, unlike UNRWA which was created specifically for Palestinians—Wilf said that this scenario still presents problems.

“The UNHCR should not be dealing with the vast majority of Palestinians for the simple reason that they are not refugees,” she asserted. “Someone who fled from Jaffa to Ramallah is not a refugee from Palestine. That person was internally displaced and his or her descendants are certainly living, in their eyes, in Palestine.”

Dr. Ofir Winter, a Research Fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line that UNRWA-administered schools have been tremendous barriers to peace. “Many textbooks in these schools are being used for incitement against Israel and to downplay coexistence,” he stressed.

Instead, these schools have promoted a one-state solution that many Palestinians hope will be heavily populated by their own people. “UNRWA schools have promoted this, teaching children with a map that shows historical Palestine, not a map that indicates Israel along the 1967 Green Line,” Dr. Winter concluded.

UNRWA’s spokesman Chris Gunness told The Media Line that if UNRWA closes down “it means that 526,000 children would not be in UN schools but would be on the streets; 270,000 of those are in Gaza, which means they would seek educational opportunities in establishments run by local authorities; 9 million patient visits in nearly 150 primary health clinics across the Middle East would not happen; and 1.7 million people would not get food assistance.”

He explained that on the political front, the move would dramatically increase a sense of desperation and nihilism among Palestinians.

Despite what he described as a political attack on the agency, Gunness noted that “UNWRA’s mandate was recently endorsed overwhelmingly by 167 members of the UN General Assembly. No single member of the assembly can change it without the consensus of the majority.”

When asked about the possibility of shifting services under the umbrella of the UNHCR, Gunness contended that “it is completely untrue that the UNHCR has a different approach to long-standing refugee situations. UNHCR registers descendants of refugees through the male and female line, whereas UNRWA only registers refugees through the male line. So, be careful what you wish for, because if you handed the refugees over to the UNHCR the numbers would likely increase dramatically.”

Furthermore, he stated, the UNHCR’s preferred remedy for refugees is repatriation via the right of return to their homelands, instead of settlement in host countries.

“We at UNWRA deal with people with an inherent dignity. And you cannot simply airbrush out of history and out the discourse 5.4 million individuals with inalienable rights. This is not a numbers game.”

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