Leaked Emails Reveal Trump Administration Pushing To Shutter UNRWA
Palestinians take part in a protest outside a UN distribution center in the Gaza Strip in 2015 against the reduction of educational programs offered by UNRWA. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

Leaked Emails Reveal Trump Administration Pushing To Shutter UNRWA

Jared Kushner wrote the agency ‘perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace’

Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior Middle East envoy, has been working to revoke the refugee status of millions of Palestinians in an apparent attempt to de-fund and ultimately close down the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), a report revealed last week.

Kushner expressed these opinions in emails obtained and published by U.S.-based Foreign Policy magazine. They indicate that the senior envoy has been highly critical of UNRWA and hopes that closing and merging it into the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees—the agency that cares for refugees worldwide—will result in a dynamic more conducive to advancing the peace process.

In one email, dated January 11, Kushner addressed several senior officials, including President Trump’s chief negotiator Jason Greenblatt, writing, “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA… This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”

In the same email he added, “Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are… Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.”

It is not clear how Foreign Policy obtained what the magazine termed “internal emails.” Legitimate questions can therefore be raised about their veracity. Nevertheless, the policy as stated in the emails appears fairly consistent with what the administration has already done and what others within it have said.

Just days after Kushner sent email, the U.S. froze $65 million in funding for the agency. This, out of $125 million normally allocated to UNRWA as part of the U.S. State Department’s first annual installment. And before the U.S. made the funding cut, Kushner, along with Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, proposed eliminating funding for UNRWA altogether.

At the time, State Department, Pentagon, and U.S. intelligence officials voiced concerns that such a move would fuel violence in the region. It was then that the Trump administration opted for a funding cut rather than eliminating funds to UNRWA altogether.

UNRWA was formed in 1949 with the U.S. providing a large portion of its budget from the start. The agency’s mission was to attend to Palestinians displaced in the war following the creation of the State of Israel. The 1948 conflict pushed many Palestinians from their homes into Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza, where they’ve settled into scattered refugee camps.

Previous U.S. administrations have supported UNRWA’s goals and financial needs, viewing the agency as a crucial stabilizer in a turbulent region.

The Trump administration’s new and seemingly pro-Israel stances, however, appear to have emboldened critics of the agency. Many pro-Israel advocates in the U.S. see UNRWA as an obstacle to peace, charging that the agency is structured to keep the refugee question alive and burning. This, they say, artificially kindles hopes among exiled Palestinians that they might someday return to Israel, a possibility that analysts say the Israeli government would never agree to.

Furthermore, critics have zeroed in on how the agency determines refugee status. As it currently operates, UNRWA uniquely grants the status not just to those who fled or left their homes over 70 years ago—estimated to be in the low tens of thousands—but also to their descendants, thereby inflating the number of Palestinian refugees to some 5 million today.

Palestinian leaders have long advocated the “right of return” to Israel for these millions. Such an influx, critics charge, would upend Israel as a majority Jewish state, effectively destroying it by demographic means.

Instead, the administration appears intent to provide host countries with incentives to integrate the refugees. Kushner raised the possibility when he met with Jordanian officials during his visit in June. According to Palestinian officials, he pressed Jordan to strip the status of the country’s 2 million registered Palestinian refugees so that UNRWA would become irrelevant there. The U.S. would then re-allocate the funds normally reserved for the agency to the host countries to help them absorb the refugees.

Advocates of the agency say it provides critical assistance—including food and schooling—to the refugees. Without it, they believe, the humanitarian situation would reach crisis proportions.

Echoing these concerns, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters in June that Kushner’s aim to halt UNRWA funding and instead re-direct the money to Jordan and other countries “is actually aimed at liquidating the issue of the Palestinian refugees.”

On Sunday, Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, responded to the Foreign Policy report by saying the Trump administration is “pushing to impose facts on the ground, by realizing all of Israel’s demands.”

Alan Baker, an Israeli international law expert and Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told The Media Line that UNRWA’s methods of defining refugees is not working as it allows every refugee to retain that status forever.

“It doesn’t define refugees in the same way as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which defines them as first generation refugees and their offspring and that’s it.”

Baker explained that the refugee problem “is one of the final-status issues to be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians. So, whatever the outcome will be, it must be based on negotiations—whether that is settlement in other countries or compensation.”

Dr. Ofir Winter, a Research Fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, highlighted the role of textbooks in UNRWA-administered schools.

“Many textbooks in these schools are being used for incitement against Israel and to downplay coexistence and the two-state solution,” he contended to The Media Line. “In this regard, the agency does not encourage the Palestinians to seek peace and find pragmatic solutions to the conflict.

“The right of return is an existential threat for Israel, given the 5 million Palestinians who are trying to claim it. For most Israelis, this threatens the Jewish character of the state and is therefore out of the question.”

Winter explained that many moderate Palestinians are in favor of a one-state solution, namely a state they hope will be heavily populated by Palestinians, including returning refugees.

“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.”

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