Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part I: Issues and History

Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part I: Issues and History


Howard Adelman

The United States cancelled all of its donations to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. The budget of UNRWA is over 1.2 billion dollars; over the past decade, the United States contributed almost 30% of that budget, about $350 million in 2017. Ostensibly, in an effort to pressure Palestinians to re-engage in the peace process, at the end of August the United States cut all donations to UNRWA on the recommendation of Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and point man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. This move had been signalled 7 months earlier when the U.S. cut its contribution by over 50% by reducing its first quarterly payment from $125 million to $60 million.

There are many dimensions to this move:

  • The humanitarian dimension and the economic effects on the recipients of that aid
  • The international community’s stress over the last decade on making refugees more self-sufficient and Kushner’s contention that UNRWA had created a culture of dependency
  • Kushner’s charge that UNRWA was both corrupt and inefficient as well as being an obstacle to peace, a claim he made in the email he sent out on 11 January 2018 with the first 50% cut
  • The possible conversion of Palestinian refugees to economic refugees, though the goal was, again ostensibly, to make them citizens of the countries in which they resided
  • The effect on Palestinian refugees as political subjects and, more specifically, on the status of many as stateless, as the U.S. now openly insisted that the Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA be resettled in their host countries
  • The effect on the right of return as both a principle and a practice
  • The effect on both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and on the rivalry between the two
  • The effect on Israel
  • The effect on Arab states in the region
  • The effect on the U.S. commitment to refugees generally given the recent cuts in the intake of refugees in 2017 from 100,000 to 45,000, but the actual admission of only 21,000 and the reduction in the target to 25,000 for 2018
  • The effect on the U.S. domestic political scene given large numbers of Democratic congressmen and Senators demanding that the cuts to UNRWA be restored and on the administration itself, given that the Pentagon, the intelligence services and the State Department – excluding such figures as Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN – all opposed those cuts lest they result in increased instability in the region; Kushner had claimed in the 11 January email that, “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.”
  • The effect on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the ostensible goal of the action, especially in the context of other American initiatives – the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Palestinian diplomatic team from Washington
  • The effects on the international refugee regime and the trend from treating refugees as humanitarian subjects to treating them as political subjects to the efforts over the past decades to treat refugees as agents with universal rights within a social and international order rather than a nation-state order or a clash of militarized forces and alliances
  • Given the last above trend, the effects on countries that have shifted their security borders from being congruent with the state to a security border which is extraterritorial

To answer these queries, it is critical that we develop an understanding of UNRWA itself and its history. UNHCR, the world’s major refugee agency, was created in 1950. Its goal is to find permanent solutions for refugees through repatriation, settlement in first countries of asylum or resettlement in other countries. UNHCR has a budget of $7.7 billion, approximately 6.5 times the budget of UNRWA. UNHCR takes care of 68 million refugees and forcibly displaced persons, a figure 12-13 times the numbers registered with UNRWA. UNRWA is responsible for 5 million refugees, including the descendants of the original 720,000 who fled or were forced to flee. There are at most a few hundred thousand of the original refugees who fled who are still alive.

UNRWA was created in December, the year before the creation of UNHCR, to provide relief and works projects to employ the refugees from and in Palestine. The original plan was based on the Tennessee Valley Authority intended to develop a source of both power and fertile land for aspiring farmers by building dams in Iraq. The agency was tasked with directing its efforts towards Palestine refugees, not just Palestinian refugees. The original effort targeted those who lost both their homes and livelihoods – they did not have to cross a border as in the UNHCR definition. Those under its responsibility included about 37,000 forcibly displaced Jewish persons as well as the 720,000 Arab refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes in what became post-1948 Israel.

In 1952, the Israeli government assumed responsibility for the Jewish refugees. Jordan, which granted citizenship to the refugees within its territory – then Jerusalem and the West Bank – did not assume primary economic responsibility for the refugees. Lebanon did not grant citizenship to its Muslim Palestinian refugees. (A small number of Christian Palestinians were offered citizenship.) Neither did Syria nor Egypt which then controlled the Gaza strip.

Unlike UNHCR, UNRWA is focused on only one group of refugees. That had been the pattern prior to 1950. Refugees were dealt with institutionally on the basis of geography. Further, they were dealt with as a humanitarian rather than a political problem. For example, in the aftermath of WWII, there were 12 million German refugees mainly uprooted from their homes in Eastern European states. Until 1948 and the founding of Israel in May of that year, there were 300,000 Jewish refugees which no country wanted to take and who had been prevented from going to Palestine by the British government.

Humanitarian aid was provided as an interim measure by ad hoc agencies in Europe from 1943 to 1946, by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, another “unra” but spelled UNRRA. Its aid services were assumed by the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in 1948.

The primary principle underlying the solution to the refugee problem at that time rested on the transfer of population principle dating back to the pre-WWII period, such as when Greeks and Turks were resettled after WWI. Thus, at the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945, the British, the Americans and the Russians agreed to “recognize that the transfer to Germany of German populations remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.” That transfer will have to be undertaken” “in an orderly and humane manner.” As the records show, and as Bernard Wasserstein documented in his book, European Refugee Movements after World War Two, the resettlement of the Germans was anything but humane and one million died in the process.

In the case of the Jews in Europe, there was no country that would take them. Canada at the time still held onto its pre-war policy that, “None Is Too Many.” The vast majority of Jewish refugees in Europe were resettled in Israel after May of 1948. Similarly, most of the 865,000 Jews who fled or were forced to flee Arab countries and Iran, where they had lived for centuries, were resettled in Israel. They came from the following countries:

Algeria                   140,000

Egypt                       75,000

Iran                          25,000

Iraq                        135,000

Lebanon                    8,000

Libya                       38,000

Morocco                259,000

Syria                        10,000

Tunisia                   100,000

Turkey                     20,000

Yemen                     55,000

Total                       865,000

Israel has since maintained that the refugees produced in the 1948 war with the Arab countries be dealt with on the 1940s principle of the transfer of populations. Israel had taken almost three-quarters of the Jews from Arab countries, Iran and Turkey. Israel made transfer an active policy by setting up A Transfer Committee and a policy of faits accomplis to prevent a refugee return, excluding some 50,000 Palestinian refugees allowed to return on humanitarian grounds. Internationally, however, the principle of transfer had been abandoned with the creation of UNHCR and with the evolution of UNRWA over the following decades.

Initially, in the 1950s, the Arab countries envisioned that the problem of the displaced refugees from what was then Israel would be resolved by war with the defeat of Israel and the return of the Palestinians to their homes, villages and towns in Israel, with hundreds of towns that Israel had destroyed needing to be rebuilt. This was also the belief when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was created in 1964. Military means, not humanitarian development schemes or population transfers or settlement and resettlement, would be used.

At the same time, the goals of UNRWA had changed. As Arab countries, most specifically Iraq that had been the primary target of the development and settlement plan, refused to accept the principle of transfer, UNRWA envisioned resettling the Palestinian refugees by giving them an education and skills. By 1960, UNRWA had transformed itself from being primarily a welfare aid agency into the Ministry of Education for the Palestinian refugees. In the aftermath of that change, the Palestinians in exile became one of the best educated Arab populations in the Middle East.

The second major development was the reinterpretation of the UNGA Resolution 194 of 11 December 1948 from a moral advisory on repatriation and compensation as the alternative to a rights-based principle. Article 11 of the original resolution read:

Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.

The plain meaning of the text in 1948 was hortatory; it became a categorical imperative. The condition of accepting a peaceful outcome was not adopted until the late eighties. The assertion that the implementation depended on Israel giving permission was transformed into Israel being obligated to consent; that formally emerged in the early seventies when the UNGA Resolution 3236 of 22 November 1974 declared the underlying principle of Resolution 194 to be “a right of return,” and, even more solidly, “an inalienable right.”

However, the Arab leadership in the aftermath of the 1967 war that still held to the principle that there would no longer be an Israel to grant permission. With the experience of even more refugees, over 300,000 produced by those who fled the West Bank and Gaza that Israel then occupied, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the interpretation of Res. 194 shifted definitively to a right’s claim against the State of Israel. Over the next fifteen years, the PLO would follow suit in accepting that shift.

In that hermeneutical change, the stress on compensation as the realistic alternative was muted. The suggestion that the “governments or authorities” responsible for the exodus, and the possibility that this would include the countries that invaded Israel, was set aside and the total obligation was placed on Israel. The proposition by the eighties had definitively become a rights doctrine, “a right of return.”

The Palestinian refugee situation was not only unique in having its own agency, but the principle of that agency as it evolved into a rights foundation made repatriation its primary goal rather than placing an equal emphasis on settlement in countries of first asylum or resettlement in other countries.

The next major shift in the interpretation of Resolution 194 only came in the last decade when the Palestinian Authority accepted that the right to return would not be applied to “homes” but to a Palestinian homeland. Hamas not only rejected that amended re-interpretation initially proposed over 20 years earlier by Rashid Khalidi, but also the acceptance of Israel as a state. The PA still opposed accepting the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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