Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part III The Economic and Political Status of Palestinian Refugees

Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part III

The effects of cutting UNRWA funding can only be understood against the historical background of Palestinians in the various areas to which they fled.

  1. Jordan

As is widely known, relative to the other Arab states, Jordan treated its Palestinian refugees very well. Jordan was the only Arab state that granted citizenship to the Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948 and 1967. In the latter case, all the residents of the West Bank were made citizens. That was prior to 1988 when Jordan announced its disengagement from the West Bank and the PLO emerged as the representative of the Palestinian people.

Palestinians holding Jordanian passports but living in the West Bank had to be distinguished from citizens living east of the Jordan River. Further, Palestinian refugees living in Gaza who fled in 1967 to Jordan were not granted citizenship. Most significantly, many Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin lost their citizenship: a) when they joined the rebellion against the monarchy in 1970; b) after Palestinians backed Saddam Hussein when he invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990-1991; and c) thousands more since who lost all civil and political rights and became stateless for other reasons.

Once stateless, as in Lebanon, those refugees could not get a tenured position at a university and often found difficulty in getting employment. Denied social security benefits, they also experienced difficulty in purchasing property. Often their children could not enroll in tertiary education.

How can a state revoke citizenship? It does and it can, and often arbitrarily based on the perception and conviction that the individual is a threat to the state. It was done in Jordan, not by cancelling the individual’s passport which would prevent him or her from leaving the country, but by removing the individual’s national number inscribed in one’s identity documents of any kind. Without that number, you cannot even acquire a driver’s license.  You certainly can never become a civil servant. You may never even be informed that you lost your national identity number.

Jordan does not restrict this practice just to suspected subversives. If the Palestinian had and failed to renew an Israeli residency permit, he or she would lose their national number. If a Palestinian failed to obtain an Israeli family unification permit or a Palestinian identity document where possible, the nationality number could be taken away. If a father lost a nationality number, so did the child even if born in Jordan. These pressures helped keep Palestinians in Jordan in line by making the citizenship they held precarious. There may be other, even contradictory, reasons behind these measures:

  • reducing the proportion of Palestinians in Jordan;
  • preventing Israel from making the West Bank Palestinian free;
  • creating Jordan as a modern nation-state with a Jordanian nationality rather than the artificial monarchical realm rooted in Bedouin nomads that Britain created in 1921;
  • pressuring Palestinians by pushing them into a corner so that 31 July 1988 could be reversed and Jordan could once again make a claim for at least part of the West Bank as an autonomous part of Jordan, a somewhat different status than the one attempted in 1950 when Jordan annexed the West Bank, increasing its population by up to 40%;
  • to ensure both internal as well as border security and that key events seared into the Jordanian memory never be repeated, namely: a) the assassination of King Abdullah by a Palestinian terrorist in 1951; b) assassination and coup attempts by Palestinians against King Hussein; and c) the initiative that came to the fore in 1970 to operate militarily against Israel, independent of the authority of the Jordanian government.

Raids into Israel followed by Israeli reprisals culminated in the civil war of Black September followed by new efforts then to exclude Palestinians from public life, reversing the pattern of the previous two decades.

Thus, the history of Jordan remained inextricably linked with that of the West Bank in spite of the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, the 1993 Oslo Accords and, most significantly, the signing of a separate peace agreement between Jordan and Israel in 1994.

  1. West Bank and Jerusalem

Except for Shu’fat located in East Jerusalem, but outside the separation wall, Jerusalem is not an area with a Palestinian refugee population. Shu’fat is not part of East Jerusalem which Israel plans to incorporate as part of its jurisdiction. Therefore, I have omitted it from this discussion. Via Oslo, the West Bank was divided into Areas A (currently 18%), B (currently about 22%) and C. Areas A and B, holding almost 3 million Palestinians, fell under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian National Authority in 1994, except for security in Area B along the Jordanian border where the IDF retained control and administers the area jointly with the Palestinians.

Initially, in Area C, Israel retained full civil and security control administered by the Judea and Samaria Administrative Authority; the Palestinian Authority retained administrative responsibility for the health and educational needs of the Palestinian population. Area C, before the 1998 Wye Memorandum, originally constituted almost three-quarters of the West Bank; Wye reduced the area to just over 60%, but this area was subsequently expanded by about 2% because of the expansion of Israeli settlements.

In Area C, the Palestinian population declined from over 600,000 to about 150,000 since Palestinians were not given building permits and some private land holdings were expropriated for “government” needs, supposedly by the IDF. About one-quarter of the non-Israeli population consists of registered Palestinian refugees, perhaps as many as 40,000, but only 6% of them, or about 3,000, live in camps. With the expansion of Israeli settlements, Area C holds about 400,000 Israelis. There has been a de facto transfer of populations.

The whole of the West Bank has 19 refugee camps with a total population of about three-quarters of a million registered Palestinian refugees. Israeli policy and intentions are relatively transparent. Incorporate 60% of the West Bank into Israel, perhaps with an equal or almost equal exchange of territory from Israel, and allow Areas A and B to fall under an autonomous Palestinian government authority or one with sovereign status but effectively under Israeli security control, or under Jordanian authority.

The latter has a real prospect if the right in Israel continues to gain in strength. In spite of all the tensions and conflicts between non-Palestinian and Palestinians in Jordan, most non-Palestinian Jordanians (65%) regard Palestinians as members of the same nation. Almost three-quarters of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Jordan regard Jordan as home, but not as their homeland. That feeling is far more intense in Jordan that in the West Bank and far more intensely felt by Palestinians who never fled versus those who continued to live in refugee camps.

An intended objective of the economic cuts to UNRWA is to enhance such loyalties to a single authority – certainly the Jordanian government east of the Jordan. If the Palestinian Authority’s bluff is called and the PA reneges on the Oslo Accords and resigns as the government in the West Bank over Areas A and B, Jordan, it is hoped by the Israeli government, would pick up the pieces, at least in Areas B and C as well as any land Israel traded with Jordan to culminate in peace.

  1. Gaza

Slightly over half the population in Gaza consists  of registered Palestinian refugees, which goes a long way to explain the more radical position of the population there and the Hamas government that has been in control for over a decade. Israelis had hoped in the past to reduce that radicalism by allowing the area to fall under complete Palestinian authority except for defence. Israeli policy has been unsuccessful. Current policy seems directed simply at managing the conflict with Hamas rather than any peace agreement. For some Israelis, and for the Trump administration, the elimination of UNRWA would allow outsiders to pressure a single source of authority while gradually eliminating the divisiveness and radicalism fostered in refugee camps.

If Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza obtain real and equal citizenship, over the long run in the above territories, the citizenship status of 80% of the registered Palestinian refugees would be resolved and, presumably, there would be reduced pressure on the right of return let alone actual return. Surveys among Palestinians indicate that only 10% would return to an area governed by Israel in any case, but a significant minority still believe in return through military victory in the long run. America and Israel hope that eliminating UNRWA would reduce that desire. Twenty years ago, Israel, in spite of its strong criticisms of UNRWA and its text books denouncing and mis-characterizing Israel, continued to support the perpetuation of UNRWA lest the aid to UNRWA be reduced and the financial burden fall on Israel. The current Israeli government has now determined to take any risk with financial obligations in exchange for a hope that the Palestinian refugee population dream of return would evaporate over time.

What the current Israeli government as well as the current American government fail to note, and as my colleague in refugee studies, Laurie Brand at the University of California, has concluded from her studies, whatever identities Palestinians share with Jordan, and the Gazans share virtually none, the culture developed among Palestinians since 1948 and reinforced in 1967 emphasizes an attachment to a home or town and not a political entity as one’s primary loyalty. The sense of loss, the deeply felt sense of injustice, the enormous resentment not only towards Israel and America, but to the international community generally, including Arab states, fuels nationalism among the committed ready to engage in self-sacrifice. Return becomes not simply an ephemeral goal but a badge of identity that provide Palestinians with a source of pride as well as hope.

It is unlikely that the weakening of UNRWA will have any significant effect on what is now a deep structural element in Palestinian identity so even the elimination of UNRWA, not a likely prospect, would have a marginal effect on eliminating the violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

  1. Lebanon

There are 450,000 to 500,000 Palestinian refugees registered as living in Lebanon who, unlike those in Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, had little possibility of becoming citizens even though the Christians among them were given citizenship decades ago when the Christians retained de facto control in Lebanon. In Lebanon, Palestinians have not had the legal right to work. The oft expressed reason is that the Lebanese do not want to deny them their Palestinian identity and, more significantly, the right to return to their homeland. The real reasons are the problem of balancing ethnic groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian instigation of the war with Israel in 1982.

One result is that only about one-third of them, about 175,000 according to a 2017 census, actually live there. Most have emigrated. Of that 175,000, at most 45% live in the 12 refugee camps. At least they are registered as living there, for many if not most have moved out. Their homes are rented out to transient workers and, more recently, to Syrian refugees, some of whom are Palestinians. In Chatila, about 60% of the residents are Syrian and 10% “others”.

Many of the others have become economically integrated. This was already evident when we undertook a survey of those Palestinians who lost their homes as a result of the 1982 Israeli invasion. Many were registered as living in camps but had de facto rented out their houses to poor Bangladeshis and others who had come to work in Lebanon as guest workers. An elite group had become the main developers and owners of high-rise apartments in a city such as Sidon.

As a result, the continued existence of UNRWA, in spite of the fact that Lebanon still denies the vast majority of Palestinians citizenship, is of significant relevance to only about 50,000 hardship cases remaining in camps, especially since UNRWA even before the cuts could only allot $10 per person every three months to these hardship cases. On the other hand, because those numbers are so small and pale in comparison to the almost two million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, there is now a realistic prospect that the Palestinians might be given an opportunity to become citizens. The continued existence or discontinuance of UNRWA is likely to have little effect either way, though a phased withdrawal of UNRWA services replaced by grants to the government of Lebanon might have accelerated such an outcome. The main impact is on those who live marginal economic lives in Lebanon.

  1. Syria

Of the 1.5-2 million Syrian refugees who ended up in Lebanon, about 50,000 are Palestinian. They fled war rather than government oppression because most Palestinians in Syria remained loyal to Assad who had introduced programs for their economic integration. Almost 4,000 died fighting for the regime. There were almost 500,000 Palestinians in Syria prior to the war, not only the 70,000 who fled in 1948 and their descendants, but the almost 100,000 who left Lebanon for Syria during the civil war there and especially in 1982.

During the civil war, they fought and they fled, most displaced within Syria itself. UNRWA funds are one important source, though relatively minor one, for rebuilding Syria. Given the vast needs in Syria, UNRWA funding, even if it is absolutely reduced, is unlikely to be a significant factor in that resurrection project.


On the surface, UNRWA funding for Palestinian refugees is significant but in the context of the much greater political and economic crises that have plagued the Middle East, its role has been marginal, especially over the last decade. Cuts in funding to UNRWA are unlikely to have a significant if any effect on the politics of the region or even the welfare of most Palestinians. If the Trump regime had introduced those cuts gradually, coordinated those cuts with actions of their allies and offset the monies cancelled with direct grants to each of the relevant governments, then it is possible that the decision to cut funding would have had a positive impact. This clearly did not happen.


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