Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 4, 2018
It seems clear that the decision by the United States on Friday to stop all funding for a U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugeesis resulting in heightened tensions with Palestinian leaders.
Ardent Israel supporters and those looking for a better shake for Palestinians should be able to agree that this is an act that leads only to new questions: What was the gain for the United States? How does this contribute toward the expressed goals of reducing tensions in the Middle East? How does this help those refugees? Was this just some kind of continuing gesture to gain support among the Israeli right and U.S. evangelicals? How does this help those refugees?
Over time, the Trump administration has offered different explanations for cutting aid to the Palestinians and stopping contributions to the United Nations agency that offer refugee aid. These have included fraud charges, and the belief — much as with domestic policies about the poor and, say, food stamps — that Palestinians need to help themselves or, at least, should be supported financially by other Arab countries.
The New York Times argues in an mexplanatory editorialthat the hope is by stripping humanitarian aid, Trump’s action will somehow persuade Palestinians to define themselves as something other than refugees and will leave all parties more open to negotiating a suitable agreement for the region. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the business model and fiscal practices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) made it an “irredeemably flawed operation.”
“These excuses range from petty to downright dangerous. Does Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, who is supposed to be preparing an Israeli-Palestinian ‘deal of the century,’ really believe that slashing assistance to the Palestinians and stripping them of their status as refugees will compel them to accept whatever one-sided plan he cooks up or teach them to show proper respect for Mr. Trump?. . . Does (Trump) recognize that depriving Palestinians of any hope of outside mediation or support, and making their lives more miserable, could well lead to another round of violence?” asks the editorial.
For sure, stopping international aid money clears the deck for more involvement by Hamas in providing critical — if biased — health, food and support services, as has happened in Gaza. Who could argue that Gazans are any closer to wanting a regional peace arrangement that favors Israeli dominance?
As soon as the United States announced it was withholding about $350 million a year, a third of the UN agency’s budget, Germany announced it was increasing its share. Our government previously had said it was to Palestinians in the West Bank, primarily intended for development and infrastructure projects. A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the decision as “a flagrant assault against the Palestinian people and a defiance of UN resolutions.”
The administration also wants a self-declared reduction in the number of Palestinians recognized as refugees, depriving them of any claim of a right to return, among the chief questions past administrations have sought to resolve through diplomacy.
Regardless of personal views of support for Israel or even alternate visions for peace in the Middle East, there is a pattern here. For example, by declaring Jerusalem the Israeli capital formally and moving our embassy there, we stepped on another Palestinian desire; by turning a blind eye to an increase in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, our government has brushed away another.
At the same time, Trump has made clear he aligns himself with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli political right wing, and has given louder voice to American evangelicals who take this position as well.
It is difficult to believe that the Trump administration is acting to keep the United States as a neutral broker for regional peace. As the editorial argues, “Trump has abdicated this leadership role, risking a humanitarian disaster and renewed violence.”
The 68-year-old UN agency provides services to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza. Most are descendants of people who were driven out of their homes or fled the fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.
The United States paid out $60 million to UNRWA in January, withholding another $65 million, from a promised $365 million for the year.
The last Palestinian-Israeli peace talks collapsed in 2014, partly because of Israel’s opposition to an attempted unity pact between the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions and Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state.
Speaking for the UN agency, Chris Gunness said, “UNRWA does not perpetuate the conflict, the conflict perpetuates UNRWA. It is the failure of the political parties to resolve the refugee situation which perpetuates the continued existence of UNRWA.”
For me, nothing of the withdrawal of aid does anything to help those in need, nor does it do anything to hasten a solution. What it does do is make me question whether the White House has a plan.
It makes neither America nor the UN great.