Israel and the PA agree on at least one issue. Providing funding of the refugees through UNRWA is primarily a political rather than an economic issue. Israel in the past was willing to set aside its political principles, correct or not, whether you agree with them or not, in favour of ensuring that funds flowed through UNRWA for the benefit of the Palestinian people. This appears to no longer be the case. It has never been the case with the Palestinian government which would rather stand on principle than accept the temptation of a pot of gold.
Though the Palestinians in general and the Palestinian refugees in particular have been most affected by the American cancellation of its contributions to UNRWA, many states have been affected as well, most specifically, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Nir Barkat is the outgoing mayor of Jerusalem. A few days ago, he announced plans to terminate the services of UNRWA in the city. For him, there are no refugees living in Jerusalem. Those in the one refugee camp, Shu’fat, are on the other side of the separation barrier. Camp Aida is 2 km. north of Bethlehem and a km. north of Beit Jala, again on the other side of the separation barrier. These refugee camps are not considered to be integral to Jerusalem, the city considered part of Israel by the current Israeli government. All residents within Jerusalem, including Palestinians in East Jerusalem, carry an Israeli identity card.
Overtly, cancelling the American contribution is designed to shift the concept of “the right of return” further from central stage. Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly in September of this year was entitled, “Jerusalem is not for sale.” According to Abbas, speaking on behalf of the PA, “A very important point. The American administration said the number of refugees is only 40,000. O brother, how have you calculated 40,000? Ask UNRWA. Of course, they now do not want UNRWA. They want to get rid of it so that the refugee issues will end forever. The agency was established in 1949 to help refugees until their issue ends. Until now, their issue has not ended. From the 13 million of our people, 6 million are refugees. Not 40,000 as they say in the American administration. They are also abrogating facts. They calculate and decide to abrogate the agency and the world will listen to it. No. That will not happen.”
In contrast to the Abbas appeal to what he regards as high principle, the mechanics of implementing the Barkat plan on behalf of Israel are grounded, simple and have long been proposed, but heretofore resisted by Israel lest economic assistance for Palestinian refugee fall on Israel’s shoulders. Under Barkat’s plan, schools and medical services proffered by UNRWA would be shifted to municipal authorities. According to Barkat, those living in East Jerusalem, “are in fact residents of Jerusalem with an Israeli ID card. As such, [they] are entitled to [services] of the State of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality.” UNRWA would no longer have any role in Jerusalem as the education, health and welfare ministry of Palestinian refugees in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has a radically different approach as might be expected. On the one hand, the PA had always been attracted to the idea of obtaining its hands on the funds provided to UNRWA that service Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But it will not, in its words, sell out its principles for a bag of loot. What are those principles:
- The PA regards cutting the assistance to UNRWA and Palestinian hospitals in “occupied East Jerusalem” as an assault on the principle of self-determination applied to the Palestinian people additional to closing the PLO office in Washington, American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the move of its embassy following such recognition, and the shifting of the right of return, Jerusalem and security off the agenda of the peace negotiations.
- The PA will not accept the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court that Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem can be divided vertically between the buildings on the surface and the land beneath and instead accuse Israeli settlers and even the Israeli army of trampling daily “on the holiness of holy sites, including the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.”
- The PA will not consider the division of East Jerusalem along the lines presumed by Barkat or even any split between Muslim areas of the old city and the rest; “Peace in our region cannot be realized without an independent Palestinian State, with East Jerusalem as its capital and with all of its holy sites…. East Jerusalem that was occupied in 1967 is our capital.”
- The PA insists that, “the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) [is] the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and will consider all aid supplied to Gaza, even for the sake of the refugees, must go through the PA rather than Hamas; this includes oil shipments from Qatar, but does not insist that aid flowing through UNRWA go via the PA.
Even though, in ideal terms, the PA wants funds destined for UNRWA on behalf of the refugees to flow through the PA, it does not champion such an outcome. On the other hand, for the PA, the deprivation of funds for and through UNRWA is one step too far in the deprivation of the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination by humiliating the PA in offering those funds as a temptation. “While we welcome all the economic and humanitarian support to our people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip through the legitimate Palestinian institutions, we refuse that this support be considered a substitute to a political solution.”
It is surprising that such a conviction seems to be held even more strongly than threats to cancel existing funding if the PA does not give up its financial support of those labeled terrorists by Israel and martyrs by the PA. With absolutely no recognition of any contradiction, popular resistance, as the PA labels it, is an integral part of its commitment to peace. On the one hand, the PA insists: “We will reject and we reject the use of force and violence.” On the other hand, Abbas insists, “I pay tribute to our honorable martyrs and courageous prisoners. Israel considers them criminals. Why? It has thousands of people who have attacked everyone? They are heroes. Why is Rabin’s killer considered a hero and we, our group, is considered criminals? I salute our heroic martyrs and heroic prisoners.”
There is a blatant irony of course. Israel will now support cancelling UNRWA funding even if it means strengthening the independence, unity and integrity of the Palestinian Authority. The PA, on the other hand, stands on principle and will not even consider the possible temptation of funds and reinforcing itself as the single and unified authority of the Palestinian people even though it is in an existential conflict with Hamas. But irony is the rule rather than the exception in ME matters and particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.