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Defunding UNRWA: 'The ultimate deal' in action?

Jan 09,2018 - Last updated at Jan 09,2018

There is little doubt that the US decision to withhold or delay payment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is more than an impulsive reaction against the Palestinian leadership in the wake of the political storm caused by President Donald Trump's proclamation on Jerusalem last month. The US is the largest contributor to the 70-year-old agency's annual budget, around 42 per cent, and its recent resolution to suspend a cash payment of $125 million, due in January, to UNRWA will have catastrophic repercussions on the cash strapped UN body.

In fact, one can only deduce that the threat to cut off financial support to an organisation that is responsible for about 5 million registered Palestine refugees and their descendants has little to do with forcing President Mahmoud Abbas to reengage in non-existent peace talks with Israel! It is a deliberate and sober move to defund UNRWA, or as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it, to make it "pass away from the world". And just as the toughest part of the negotiations, Jerusalem, was taken off the table, in Trump's own words, the dismantling of UNRWA will remove another complex final-status issue; that of the Palestinian refugees and the right of return. It is part of a scheme to dismantle and bury the Palestine question.

But despite Netanyahu's cautious support of the US move, and warnings emanating from his own Cabinet members and security officials, doing away with UNRWA, at this stage, will be catastrophic for all. The UN agency was formed in 1949, following the first Arab-Israeli war, by the General Assembly, with Israel's backing. Its mandate, which is different from that of the UN Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is renewed by the same body every three years and it is responsible for Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. And while like the UNHCR, it allows refugee status to be inherited by descendents, it does not seek to end that status through local integration in current host countries or resettlement in a third country.

Netanyahu and his predecessors claim that allowing the right of return will lead to the elimination of the state of Israel. He wants UNHCR to take over UNRWA's responsibilities; thus paving the way for settling Palestine refugees in host countries; an explosive issue especially for Jordan and Lebanon. 

Since the Oslo process was launched in the 1990s, Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors had explored ways to symbolically implement the right of return, opting for financial compensation instead and the repatriation of Palestine refugees into the nascent Palestinian state. It is a complex issue that will not be resolved through unilateral steps by either Israel or the United States.

In fact, the refugee challenge underlines the need for a credible and just political process that requires international support and regional cooperation. Attempting to take the problem off the negotiation table, as Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners would like, is not only simplistic and naive but dangerous in its regional repercussions.

One cannot help but assert that the Trump administration is being both reckless and sloppy in implementing a Netanyahu agenda whose ultimate goal is to shut down the Palestinian cause altogether. If we are to believe what Michael Wolff has unveiled in his recent book "Fire an Fury" about Trump's White House, the so-called "ultimate deal" in the Middle East gives the Palestinians absolutely nothing in terms of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is exactly the position of Netanyahu, whose Likud Party has just voted to impose Israeli law on Jewish settlements in the West Bank; virtually annexing most of the occupied territories.

Defunding UNRWA now will threaten Israeli security, especially in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, create chaos in the occupied territories, bring down the Palestinian Authority and enrage host countries. And just as with the Jerusalem issue, it will bring to the front the plight of the Palestinian people. It will not succeed in blackmailing the Palestinian leadership but will allow extremists to press their case; that a negotiated settlement is impossible and that armed resistance is the only way forward. It will prove what moderate leaders had always said: Unless the Palestinian issue is resolved justly the region will continue to be unsettled.

This is why the international community, including wealthy Arab and Muslim countries, must step in to neutralise the UNRWA card. The US annual share of the agency's budget is almost half a billion dollars — a sum that pales in comparison when one thinks of the geopolitical damage that will result from UNRWA's collapse. Keeping the agency alive is a must but resolving the Palestinian issue has never been so urgent and cost effective for the entire world. 



Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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