There is little question that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), like so much of the bloated UN bureaucratic superstructure, is deeply flawed. It has been complicit in perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by refusing to resettle refugees in host countries and by expanding the definition of what it means to be a Palestinian refugee. That only fuels the widespread perception in Israel that dealing with the refugee issue is really code for eliminating the Jewish state.
As in so many other UN agencies, there is a big disparity in funding, with the United States annually contributing more than twice as much as the second largest funder, the European Union, and a disturbing lack of accountability. Should international funds support the use of textbooks in UNRWA-supported schools that incite violence against Jews and Israel? Absolutely not; that’s just one area where a new accountability and new supervision on the ground are badly needed.
A serious plan to deal with a broken system and one fully integrated into a broader humanitarian and peacemaking effort is to be welcomed. But an angry gesture detached from a broader, well-thought-out policy can only make a bad situation worse and make the quest for a genuine peace in the region even more difficult.
So far, it is unclear which course the Trump administration will pursue.
In January, the White House announced plans to freeze a major portion of the U.S. contribution to the organization. In 2016, Washington contributed $369 million out of UNRWA’s $1.25 billion budget. This week, there were reports that Jared Kushner, the primary architect of the administration’s yet-to-be-revealed peace plan, wants to exclude the descendants of those who left at the time of Israel’s founding from designation as refugees. This week, Foreign Policy magazine published accounts of a January email by Kushner calling for “an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA.” That suggests more of an emotional response than a thoughtful effort to encourage badly needed reforms.
Today, UNRWA classifies more than five million as Palestinian refugees, a number that includes both those who left in 1948 and 1967 and their descendants. That designation is a particularly irksome subject for Israeli leaders because of Palestinian insistence on a “right of return,” a poison pill in past negotiations and a legitimate concern in assuring that Israel remains a Jewish state.
But redefining Palestinian refugees out of existence won’t solve the problem of millions living in squalid camps and susceptible to the extremists whose sympathy for the refugees may lie mostly in their value as political blunt instruments. Gutting critical health and social services without concrete plans to maintain and improve them can only exacerbate the misery that makes the terrorists’ message appealing to so many, especially the young.
Any action that badly undermines UNRWA services without addressing the larger problem will be one more body blow to Washington’s role as a major player in the region, opening the door to leadership by others less sympathetic to Israel’s interests. Reform and accountability are required. As it is for so much of the sprawling United Nations hierarchy, responsible change is long overdue. So is finding a way to share the economic burden more equitably.
A reflexive lashing out against a flawed system can only make a complex, volatile situation worse. So will any effort that results in punitive cuts to critical services in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. And compounding a humanitarian crisis that UNRWA helped create will not help a Jewish state that yearns for peace and security.
For now, it appears that the U.S. approach to the Palestinians is to make clear that the longer they resist peace efforts, the harsher they will be treated and the less they will receive in the end. In the meantime, resentment and hopelessness grow in Gaza (though there is talk of a long-term deal between Israel and Hamas), and that usually results in more terrorism, more bloodshed. There have been three wars with Hamas in the last decade. New approaches will be needed to avoid a fourth.