A pupil stands at the entrance of a school run by United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)

Palestinian Refugees: In The Middle Of Nowhere

Palestinians lodge angry protests accusing the U.S. of seeking to end the ‘right-of-return’ and ultimately the Palestinian cause

[Ramallah]—Middle East political analysts agree that the U.S. Department of State’s confirmation of the U.S. president’s decision to withdraw more than $200 million from Palestinian aid programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that are administered through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), is aimed at ending the Palestinian refugees’ status and cause.

Facing strong opposition from lawmakers and other U.S. officials, the Trump administration dropped plans to cut its multi-billion-dollar foreign aid budget, which includes more than $200 million frozen by Trump since March for reconstruction projects in Syria. Earlier this month, the White House Bureau of Administration and Budget had asked the State Department and USAID to provide information for a package of “cancellations.”

An unnamed senior Palestinian official clarified that U.S. grants to UNRWA were unconnected to Congress’s position on foreign aid. “The American presidency decides on the aid money to be sent to the agency, not any other governmental body,” he said.

The official speculated that reducing Washington’s contribution to UNRWA was a preparatory step to a complete cut, adding that “very soon UNRWA won’t have any American aid left.”

With the U.S. contribution accounting for about 50 percent of UNRWA’s budget last year, the Trump administration explained that the decision had been made to ensure “that these aid funds provided by the U.S. are spent in line with the national interests of the country and U.S. taxpayers.”

Jordanian political analyst Moeen al-Taher told The Media Line that the U.S. decision was aimed at “canceling the ‘right-of-return’ and ending the ‘refugees file.’” He added that senior White House adviser Jared Kushner believed that only Palestinians who were born before the 1948 War of Independence were to be considered refugees, decreasing the stated number of Palestinian refugees from 5 million to 40,000.
“I don’t think the Palestinian Authority (PA) would accept the decision,” al-Taher opined.

In a speech on Tuesday to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, questioned the accuracy of UN statistics on the number of Palestinian refugees.

“The U.S. will fund UNRWA if the agency adjusts its statistics to match ‘accurate estimates.’ In such a case we will return to partnership with them.”

Saeb Erekat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee, speaking at the annual conference of the Arab American University’s Policy and Conflict Resolution Studies Center, accused Kushner of offering to pay Arab governments funds previously directed to UNRWA in return for their pledge to serve the U.S. agenda in the region.

The Palestinian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) heavily condemned the U.S. announcement, describing it as part of a plan to dismantle UNRWA and strip millions of Palestinians of their refugee status.

“The Trump administration plans to commit an immoral scandal against the Palestinian refugees by giving itself the right to abolish [their] historical rights… without any legitimacy,” PMO spokesperson Ahmad Shami stated in a press release. He clarified that the U.S. administration is using humanitarian aid to “blackmail” and “pressure” the PA to submit to its “empty plan [i.e., the deal of the century].”

“We reiterate our calls to the international community to stop the gambling schema of Trump and Netanyahu to endorse colonization, apartheid and denial of Palestinian fundamental rights,” Shami said. He also called for support for “President Abbas’s initiative to hold an international peace conference to restore hopes for peace through the internationally adopted two-state solution.”

The U.S. State Department noted that the decision to withhold aid funds “takes into consideration the challenges facing the international community of providing assistance in Gaza, where the Hamas movement is endangering Gaza’s population and leading to the deterioration of the poor humanitarian and economic situation.”

“We refuse the American decision, as well as the involvement of the PA and Hamas,” a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon told The Media Line under condition of anonymity out of fear for his personal safety.

He strongly criticized the Americans for trying to “steal the rights of the Palestinian refugees,” who had “suffered for many years,” adding that “ending the right-of-return means ending the Palestinian cause, which is worth nothing without Palestinian refugees.” At the same time, however, he accused the PA and Hamas of long-time theft of the aid money that has been allocated for the refugees.

“Come to Lebanon and see how Fatah officials and their relatives are living in luxury houses and driving expensive cars while their children go to good schools and wear high-end clothes,” he said, also pointing to Hamas officials and their “exclusive” lifestyles.

Fatima, 88, a Palestinian refugee in Jordan, is depressed about U.S. decision. “I still have the key to my house in my village of Yalo,” she told The Media Line. “I dream that I am praying in al-Aqsa [Mosque in Jerusalem] almost every night.”

Palestinian political analyst Hani al-Masri told The Media Line that “The American administration in the era of Trump moved from finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to forcing the Israeli solution on the Palestinians.” He clarified that the latest decision comes as part of planned steps intended to end the Palestinian cause, while at the same time trying to satisfy the Palestinians with economic projects and investments.

However, he said, “what they are lacking here is Palestinian legitimacy, which is almost impossible to ensure now or later,” affirming that no Palestinian leader would accept the U.S. plan.

“I believe they are pressuring the PA to a limit that they will accept or at least negotiate the ‘deal-of-the-century,’ rather than just refuse the unrevealed plan, adding that “previously, international resolutions were the reference for negotiations, despite the fact that Israel has never fully committed to them. Nowadays, we have no base or reference, [other than] Israel’s best interests—and the Israelis want everything!”

UNRWA recently revealed that it was facing a budget deficit of $270 million and urged the international community to make every effort to meet the budget shortfall.

At a UN Security Council meeting, UN Deputy Secretary-General for Political Affairs Rosemary de Carlo said: “We always take note of the unprecedented financial problems that UNRWA has faced.”

She warned that if the budget deficit was not covered soon, UNRWA would face serious repercussions regarding the humanitarian situation, which would in turn “negatively affect the stability of the region.”

In Gaza, UNRWA runs 278 schools, attended by some 300,000 students, and employs about 13,000 people. Following the U.S. decision to suspend funds, schools, clinics and food distribution centers in the Gaza Strip closed down after UNRWA workers walked out. More than half of the two million people in the coastal enclave, where unemployment stands at 46%, are dependent on support from UNRWA and other humanitarian agencies.

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