Shut Down UNRWA? Some Fear Backlash


A reported White House proposal to no longer consider Palestinians “refugees” and to disband the United Nations organization created to care for them in that capacity is receiving mixed reviews from Jewish leaders here. There are those who agree with the concept but caution that it must be done in a way that will not harm the Palestinians or future peace prospects.

“The premise is certainly good,” said David Michaels, B’nai B’rith International’s director of UN and international affairs. “We in the Jewish community have no objection to aid or service the Palestinians either in the Palestinian Authority territories or abroad. … No one wants to see the Palestinians suffer. But I don’t think that anyone … would contest that the status quo is not ideal. In fact, it is not sustainable.”

Disbanding the United Nations Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) would end the group’s “complicity in perpetuating this notion of a mass Palestinian right of return to Israel, which helps sustain the dream of eliminating Israel as a majority Jewish state with a democratic Jewish identity,” Michaels observed. “UNRWA’s service as a strident, politicized advocate for the Palestinian narrative has been exploited as a propaganda tool against Israel in times of tension.”

The proposal to disband UNRWA — which provides education, food, health and other welfare assistance to some 5 million Palestinians — has been discussed in emails by members of the Trump administration who are crafting the administration’s proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, according to Foreign Policy magazine. It quotes emails from Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to Jason Greenblatt, special representative for international negotiations, and Nikki Haley, U.S. envoy to the UN.

In a Jan. 11 email, Kushner reportedly wrote: “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.”

Another adviser on the Middle East peace team, Victoria Coates, is quoted as saying in an email that UNRWA might be phased out “by the time its charter comes up again in 2019. … UNRWA should come up with a plan to unwind itself and become part of the UNHCR.”

She was referring to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which was created in 1950 to help millions of Europeans who fled or lost their homes in World War II. UNRWA, on the other hand, deals only with Palestinians, and it is the only UN body devoted solely to dealing with one group of people.

The Palestinian Authority has denounced the proposal as intended to end Palestinian refugees’ claims to the “right of return” to Israeli land. The Israeli government has long insisted that would never happen.

But Michaels said he would have to see what the administration is proposing how to replace UNRWA “before we weigh in on the consequences.”

Israel’s foreign ministry opposes dismantling UNRWA, saying it could lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe,” according to published reports. Naftali Bennett, education minister and head of the Israel Home party, disagrees, supporting the cut off of funding of “a terror-supporting organization.” Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly is in the middle, publicly supportive of Trump’s squeeze on Hamas but privately wary of such a dramatic move.

Reports this week said the peace plan would not be unveiled until after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

One idea said to be under consideration would be to transfer UNRWA’s funds to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Earlier this year, the Trump administration cut the first $125 million installment of its annual payment to UNRWA by more than half, to $60 million.

One bill now before Congress would restrict U.S. funding to assisting only the few thousand Palestinians who were original refugees after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. UNRWA is now assisting them and their offspring. The money saved would be directed to USAID. Another bill would end all funding to UNRWA and redirect the money to other agencies.

David Halperin, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum (which supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), said that while UNRWA “is deeply flawed, we do not want to see 200,000 plus [Palestinian] kids going to Hamas schools or ending up on the streets. Until a viable organization is created [to replace UNRWA], needed funding must remain in place.

“Over 200,000 children start school in a month,” he said. “Where are they going to go? Just ripping off the Band-Aid with no infrastructure for USAID in place … is not a strategy. I sympathize greatly with the goal because it [UNRWA] helps perpetuate a fantasy of the right of return.”

But he said he disagrees with the January email statement in which Kushner reportedly wrote, “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.”

Such an idea, Halperin said, “is not an effective strategy.”

Noting that after the Palestinian Authority severed all communications with the U.S. in response to the American embassy being moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Halperin said he believes the UNRWA proposal only “harms the atmosphere further. … But ultimately it is fully appropriate to wind it down in a strategic manner.”

A spokesman for J Street, Logan Bayroff, noted that the Trump administration already cut funds to UNRWA at a time when there is a “major humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

“That agency is responsible for providing food, education and clothing to people who are suffering,” he said. “The administration made the cuts against the recommendation of the Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community.”

The Trump administration reportedly has asked Jordan to end refugee status for 2 million Palestinians now living in Jordan and to grant them citizenship, a move that if Jordan agreed would “seriously undermine a key American and Israeli ally,” Bayroff said.

Rather than advancing a two-state solution, the Trump administration is “advancing punitive measures against the Palestinian people and their leadership,” she said.

The Trump administration’s proposal did not come as a surprise to Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, who noted that she wrote an article about it in January in the Huffington Post. In it, she wrote that President Donald Trump had taken the issue of Jerusalem “off the table” by moving the American embassy there. And she said that destroying UNRWA would be “bad for Israel and would have serious humanitarian implications for Palestinians. …

“What it is really about is further shattering the terms of reference established by the Oslo Agreement and removing from the negotiating agenda another sensitive and explosive permanent status issue. In short, this attack is about taking Palestinian refugees, like Jerusalem, ‘off the table’ ….”

She told The Jewish Week that the “international community is not signing off on this. The U.S. is trying to compel the world to tell the Palestinians that their claims to being refugees are done — get over it. Imagine if that were said to the Jews [in 1948] — ‘You are never going to get a state, get over it.”

The American Jewish Committee’s CEO, David Harris, called the current practice of classifying Palestinians as “‘refugees’ from generation to generation” is untenable. But he said it “can’t be scuttled in its entirety overnight” unless a replacement is found to handle educational and welfare issues.

And Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, argued that the “Palestinians are a stateless people, and will remain so until they have a state of their own. Changing terminology will not change this basic fact. Any final decisions about the refugees, including resettlement and/or compensation will need to be determined as part of a comprehensive peace agreement, and not unilaterally imposed before negotiations have begun. Defunding UNRWA would have a disastrous impact on the health and well-being of Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, where there is already a major humanitarian crisis.”