Hard Questions, Tough Answers (August 13, 2018) – Trump, UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Last week the Trump administration escalated pressure to reconfigure the entire Palestinian refugee issue, beginning by redefining refugee status in Jordan and defunding UNRWA. How will this affect regional stability and the prospects for a peace process?

A. The Trump initiatives regarding Palestinian refugees will affect stability and peace prospects negatively. That this is patently obvious to nearly all informed observers in the region reflects this administration’s abject ignorance of the role of the refugee issue in the Palestinian narrative and, beyond, in the conflict in general.

Q. Can you begin with a little basic background information?

A. UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, was founded in December 1948 to deal with approximately 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from the territory that became Israel in its war of independence. Rather than seek to resettle these refugees as a step toward resolving the nascent Arab-Israel conflict, UNRWA was charged by the Arab world via the UN with the task of perpetuating the refugee issue. Today it provides services in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to nearly six million refugee descendants, into the fourth generation.

The UN proceeded in 1950 to create UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to deal with all other refugee issues in the world. Ever since, the Arab bloc in the UN has ensured that UNRWA maintains a separate existence and that, uniquely, in can treat as refugees the great-grandchildren of 1948 refugees and not seek to resettle them. This in turn has kept alive the Palestinian refugee issue as a major impediment to any agreed resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Palestinians would have it no other way. According to their historical, national and religious narrative, the refugee issue must be kept alive--rather than, say, being resolved through financial compensation and resettlement outside of Mandatory Palestine--because it represents the demand that Israel accept the “right of return” of the refugees. And the right of return represents Palestinian insistence that Israel was created as an artificial colonialist implant of Jewish co-religionists who have no genuine national roots in the Holy Land.

In practical terms, moderate Palestinians are prepared to suffice with a resolution of the right of return issue whereby Israel acknowledges in some way or other that the State of Israel was “born in sin” in 1948--i.e., it was responsible for all the events surrounding the birth of the refugee issue--and provides financial reparations for properties abandoned then. More extreme Palestinians, beginning with Hamas but including many of the refugee descendants themselves, insist that “return” to what is today Israel must be included in any end-of-claims two-state settlement. A Palestinian leader who abandons the right of return as part of a final status deal knows that under present circumstances he risks the wrath of millions of diaspora Palestinians.

In a series of negotiations since 1993, Israel has agreed to financial compensation (indeed, PM David Ben Gurion agreed to this in 1949) and a share of the responsibility for the events of 1948. But Israel has not agreed to acknowledge its own lack of legitimacy and/or its guilt in causing the refugee issue, which according to the Israeli narrative was generated primarily by violent Arab rejection of Israel’s existence in 1948. Israel has certainly never accepted “return”, whether massive or symbolic, insofar as this would constitute in Arab eyes an Israeli admission of illegitimacy--hardly a formula for peaceful coexistence. (Israel has, on the other hand, at times agreed to limited “family reunification”, a step that would renew a pre-1967 practice--see below.)

All told, this is why the refugee issue is kept alive. And this, at the narrative level, explains UNRWA. But at the economic and humanitarian level, UNRWA is a different story. After 70 years of calculated neglect of a more traditional solution to the Palestinian refugee issue in the form of resettlement, UNRWA has become in many cases the exclusive provider of health, education and housing services for millions of destitute Palestinians: 75 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip, 33 percent in the West Bank, two million in Jordan and several hundred thousand in Lebanon. Its budget currently stands at $1.25 billion, funded largely by the US, UK, EU, Germany and Saudi Arabia.

Note that the emergence of a Palestinian refugee issue was paralleled in 1948-49 by creation of a Jewish refugee issue. Around 600,000 Jews fled Arab countries because of Arab violence against them generated by the Israel-Arab war of those years. It was primarily Israel, with the financial help of world Jewry, that absorbed them. In the Israeli narrative, these were new immigrants and Zionists, not refugees. The UN was never asked to care for them. They left behind, in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and other countries, property more valuable than what the Palestinians left behind, yet were never offered compensation. The asymmetry is striking.

Q. So perhaps Special Adviser to the President Jared Kushner has a point when he demands (as was quoted last week) “an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA”.

A. Note that Kushner earlier reportedly suggested to Jordan that it take the lead in disrupting UNRWA by unilaterally cancelling the refugee status of some two million Palestinians who are Jordanian citizens. Here he ignored the fact that Jordan’s domestic stability depends on maintaining political and economic coexistence between the East Bank’s native population and the country’s large percentage of Palestinian inhabitants. The Trump administration has also unilaterally cancelled most of its annual contribution to the UNRWA budget, thereby plunging the organization into a financial crisis involving layoffs and school closings in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere.

Kushner has apparently perceived correctly that the Palestinian refugees and the issue of “return” are major obstacles to resolving the conflict. But does the way forward lie in brutally dismantling UNRWA? If Trump and Kushner have their way, the poverty level in Gaza will rise overnight and with it the humanitarian crisis in the Strip. No one else can step in there to feed, house and educate Palestinians under Hamas rule even if Trump is prepared to transfer UNRWA funds to Arab state governments.

Will Hamas now be brought to its knees, give up its rockets, tunnels and incendiary balloons and beseech Israel for peace and sustenance? Does the same US administration that believes that prosperity and economic development will bring peace to Gaza also believe that impoverishment will bring peace?

In fact, neither approach will work. This is not an economic conflict. In the near term, a defunct UNRWA almost certainly means another war between Israel and Hamas precisely because Hamas will have absolutely nothing to lose. By impoverishing and angering Palestinian refugees in Jordan, it might also mean tension bordering on civil war there.

Yes, UNRWA suffers from corruption and inflated refugee statistics. In Gaza it has been known to employ Hamas activists. But if UNRWA funds in Jordan and Lebanon are transferred to those countries’ governments, won’t they end up employing the same crooked standards and same teachers?

Last week Yossi Beilin, a veteran Israeli peace campaigner and negotiator and former minister, wrote that “UNRWA should be shuttered, but not in the slam-bang manner advocated by Trump and his team.” It has to be phased out as part of a peace process agreed between Israelis and Palestinians. Right now, as far as I and most other observers can see, neither side is ripe for any sort of peace process or agreement. Ergo, leave UNRWA in place and fully financed for lack of a better alternative and in order not to make matters worse.

Q. Are you arguing that ill-conceived American peace initiatives can generate new violence when they fail?

A. Yes. Here are three recent examples.

In 2000, failure of the US-initiated Camp David final status talks fed directly into the eruption of the second intifada. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat apparently conceived of the intifada as a means of pressuring Israel to make additional concessions.

In 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month peace effort ended in failure. Worse, it culminated in US pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that led him, in response, to seek to strengthen his position by bringing Gaza-based Hamas into a new unity government. One consequence was giving Hamas more operational freedom in the West Bank. The outcome was the abduction and murder of three yeshiva students and a series of escalating events that ended up in another Israel-Gaza war exactly four years ago.

And in 2017-2018, President Trump unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and opened a US embassy there. This led Abbas to cut off all peace-process ties with the US, and in March produced the first in a long series of mass Friday demonstrations by Gazans along the border fence. These have generated multiple casualties and escalated tensions very close to the point of all-out war.

These abortive US initiatives have made a solution--any solution--harder rather than easier to achieve. And it is already hard enough: the latest reliable PSR poll from Ramallah and Jerusalem shows that actual support for a two-state solution among both Israelis and Palestinians is down to 43 percent, and dropping poll after poll. The Trump administration argues that recognizing Jerusalem and eliminating UNWRA are designed to take these issues “off the [negotiating] table”, thereby rendering a solution easier. Nothing could be further from reality. We would all have been better off without Washington’s poorly conceived efforts and without the Netanyahu government’s mindless encouragement of them.

Q. Has Israel tried in the past to change or expel UNRWA?

A. I was an IDF intelligence officer during the 1967 Six-Day War. Prior to the war UNRWA was seen by Israel as a major factor in perpetuating the refugee issue and instigating cross-border violence from the (Egyptian-occupied) Gaza Strip and the (Jordanian) West Bank. So inevitably, when the smoke cleared from the war and we found ourselves occupying the Gaza Strip with its teeming refugee camps, there was a strong inclination in Israel to seize the initiative and expel UNRWA.

That never happened. It very quickly dawned on IDF occupying forces and military government administrators that UNRWA fulfills vital functions--education, sanitation, housing, medical treatment--that Israel itself would have to assume if it dispensed with UNRWA’s services. That would have meant outlays in money and manpower that we didn’t have. So Israel very quickly learned to coexist with UNRWA.

That didn’t stop Israel from launching several projects to reduce refugee numbers in ways that UNRWA, by virtue of its Arab-backed mandate, refused to do. These didn’t work either. Refugee camp residents in the Gaza Strip were given building materials and allotted land outside the camps where they could build proper homes. Occupying the new homes was made conditional on destroying the old ones inside the camps. That worked on a limited basis until the first intifada, which erupted in late 1987 and lasted several years. Back then, the first thing rioting and resentful Palestinians did was destroy the new homes, which were perceived as symbols of Israeli rule.

Another initiative involved offering financial bonuses to Gazan refugee families that agreed to emigrate to Paraguay. Several thousand took the money and left. That project ended in 1970 when two of the emigrees, apparently angry over unfulfilled promises or expectations, attacked the Israel embassy in Asuncion and killed a secretary, the wife of an Israeli diplomat.

Earlier, during the period 1949-1967, Israel repatriated around 80,000 West Bank and Gazan refugees under a “family reunification” plan in which UNRWA cooperated. In fact, in 1950 Ben Gurion agreed to repatriate at least 100,000 Gaza-based refugees as part and parcel of a comprehensive peace deal with Israel’s Arab neighbors that would allow Israel to annex the Gaza Strip, which at the time was deemed vital for Israel’s security vis-à-vis Egypt. But the Arabs rejected peace and Gaza remained under Egyptian occupation until 1967.

Q. Your bottom line?

A. When it comes to UNRWA, the Trump administration’s Middle East negotiators should by now have learned to beware what they wish for. Ultimately, dismantling UNRWA is vital for a solution. But it should happen at the end of a carefully calibrated process rather than as the first step in a series of dangerously disjointed and ill-conceived gestures.