Gangsters: Peaky Blinders – Part II of II

If I read the intention of the creator of the TV series Peaky Blinders correctly, for Steven Knight, gangsterism is a representation of the world writ small. He overtly expressed a wish to make the series larger than life, but as viewed by a ten-year-old. The series is also an enlarged life in another way in which the small confronted the large, as evidenced in many events in the film, including the final boxing match. Behind the façade of murders and scheming, lies the premise that ideas, ideology, and especially theology and biblical tropes rather than convictions, count. They are as living as the blast furnaces on that street in Birmingham.

At a dangerous and justifiably paranoid time of agitation and violence, when ideological factionalism set brother against brother, the deep bonds of blood brothers provided an extra source of strength. In the end, for Knight, this analysis of tribalism writ large is more important than self-interest, economics, class and balance of power – though all these additions play a very significant part in the drama.

The series, with four years under its belt and three more to go, ended a year ago in December 2017. Peaky Blinders is based as much on superstructure as plot or character or theme, on manipulative, self-perpetuating elites interacting with those with intimate social ties, though ones which shift and vary with context. In both cases, at both levels, they are in the end ethnic in the broader sense. However, the dynamism comes from Tommy’s (and sometimes Polly’s) initiatives in mobilization, ensuring participation and structuring the Shelby organization. Together, both levels reinforce the ethnicity and the different dynamics of oppression and how they interact.

Gender also plays a role as defined by the various female characters who had developed an unprecedented degree of independence during WWI when they ran things. Major female characters include Polly (Helen McCrory) with her organizational skills complemented by her Gypsy ability at “sight,” and Grace (née Burgess) Shelby (Annabelle Wallis) with her ability to work undercover while possessing a determination and a sense of sacrifice. This role may have been the one real sample of both poor characterization – her shift in personality from the first to the second series was both a cliché and implausible when she cheats on her husband – and possibly casting, for Wallis was cool as a cucumber as a British undercover agent, but cold and wooden when, out of passion, she betrays her husband for Tom Shelby.

The female cast also includes: Ada Thorne (Sophie Rundle) with her independence and ideological commitment, even as she shifted, in this case, totally plausibly and convincingly, to capitalism from her communism in the opening series when she was enamoured with Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg), a communist agitator whom she married and whose baby she had; and Lizzie Stark (Natasha O’Keeffe), the loveable prostitute rather than adulteress (John 7:53 – 8:11) who had no need of the historically real Josephine Butler who agitated on behalf of prostitutes, for Lizzie was accepted as an individual in her own right, even if not as a bride for John Shelby (Joe Cole).

The fantastic women also include Linda Shelby (Kate Phillips), a true Christian who works hard to get the eldest Shelby, Arthur (Paul Anderson), on the straight and narrow, but becomes a Shelby and falls to the lure of alcohol and drugs; Esmé Shelby (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), a loyal and loving wife to John Shelby even though the marriage was arranged to cement an alliance between two gypsy clans; May Fitz Carleton (Charlotte Riley), the epitome of loneliness and wealth, a horse trainer who is grounded rather than aloof, privileged but aching for dynamism instead of the straight-laced life, hence her deep love of thoroughbreds – and, paradoxically, Tommy Shelby.

The cast also includes Princess Tatiana Petrovna (Gaite Jansen), a White Russian duchess who cannot be trusted at all – a characteristic of the aristocratic classes that runs through the series – for she, without any scruples, is manipulative and ruthless, degenerate and capable of cold-blooded murder, with the same gift of sight as the royal Romani, Polly, while as calculating and clever as Tommy Shelby. The very opposite foil for the Russian duchess is Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy), a communist union boss who proves to be as determined and disciplined as Tommy Shelby. There was a real Jessie Eden who founded mass trade unionism for women in Britain. The character in Peaky Blinders is a worthy tribute, especially when she bargains for equal pay for women with Tommy Shelby. In fact, and more generally, it is worth watching Peaky Blinders for the gender angle alone, an angle usually given only a passing glance in a gangster movie.

Peaky Blinders is not a historically accurate TV series. For example, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), the leader of the Peaky Blinders, claimed that he (and Churchill) fought at the Somme and Verdun when Winston Churchill had temporarily left politics for active military service following his role in championing the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign. However, no British soldiers were involved in the Battle of Verdun, the largest and longest battle of the war; it was a French-German battleground that went on for ten months in 1916.

There are other historical errors and oversights, as well as many implausible dramatic touches. Peaky Blinders was a real Birmingham gang in the 1890s with the usual well-dressed, powerful and ruthless mobsters, but, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, none with the intellectual capacities and emotional range of Tommy Shelby. Further, the gang had disappeared by the 1920s. And even then, gangs consisted of “toughs” rather than mobsters engaged in organized crime. On the other hand, Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed-Miles), who is killed at the end of the first year’s series, was a real historical character who controlled race courses. As in Peaky Blinders, he was murdered.

Nevertheless, the series goes beyond being terrific and enters into the realm of speculative historiography in trying to portray that history in terms of underlying competing forces. Further, just as leaders of gangs try both to avenge their fathers and exalt their memories, statesmen are little different. Winston Churchill in one of his published speeches said of his own father, Lord Randolph, when he died, “All my dreams of companionship with him, of entering Parliament at his side and in his support were ended. There remained only for me to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory.”

In the opening episode of Peaky Blinders, the British government, via orders of Winston Churchill, presumably then in his capacity as Minister of Munitions, was sending machine guns to Libya in 1919. There is no explanation of why Britain would be doing this. But any superficial knowledge of history suggests that Britain was supplying those arms to Italy to support its colonization of that country, the legacy of which remains with us to this day. Italy then controlled the coast of what is now Libya; it did not control the hinterland. British assistance was critical in the Italian Tripolitania and Cyrenaica campaigns.

Much more locally in terms of historical realism, as a result of the industrial revolution, Sparkhill was developed in 1890 with industries and working-class housing. It even had its own pub like The Garrison. Settled initially by immigrants from Ireland, in our time Pakistanis would take their place. The area was annexed by Birmingham in 1911 and Sparkhill evolved into an inner-city area one year after Libya was first colonized by Italy. In 1919, a factory of the BSA Company located in Sparkhill had an exclusive contract to refurbish and dispose of surplus munitions, including Lewis guns left over from WWI.

Just as the gangs in Britain recruited mercenaries to their ranks in rivalries with other gangs, Italy employed mercenaries from Somalia and Eritrea to expand its empire. The world of domestic gangs mirrored the imperial struggles in the larger world and played bit parts in those struggles. The recruits were also vicious killers. Just as the factory workers were organized by the communist party of Britain, supported by Russia (another element woven through the series), and went on wildcat strikes and participated in general strikes, the Arabs revolted in 1919. Italy needed guns to put down the rebellion. And Britain needed to keep the stolen guns out of the hands of the IRA then conducting a civil war in Ireland, another thread in the TV series and a link to real historical events.

As the forces of nationalism, of fascism, of communism, of imperialism, rivaled one another, they also do so in Peaky Binders as a critical ingredient in the background. Locally, gangs were rooted in ethnicities – Gypsy, Irish, Jewish, Italian – internationally the rivalries were rooted in nationalities dressed up in ideologies. But the gangs on the ground in Britain were inherently capitalist, which gave them the economic push to advance their success.

The local scale reflected the international one. In 1922 in Birmingham, there was a truce between Billy Kimber, the historical real leader of the successor to Peaky Blinders, and the Sabinis. Just as in the series, gangs made temporary truces to advance their positions against other rivals. The Sabinis historically were the kings of the racehorse gangs controlling betting and racing in southern England. This Italian gang reputedly had 300 Sicilian “soldiers.” Nightclubs served as fronts for its backroom activities of extortion and robbery, and the gang was protected by police in its pay.

On the international scale, recall that Benito Mussolini, based on the theories of the philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, became Prime Minister of Italy in 1922 when Churchill had been elevated to Secretary of State for the Colonies. Mussolini was the first major leader in the post-WWI period to apply the principles of fascism and is erroneously often given credit for inventing that ideology. The British aristocracy, upper classes and wealthy industrialists largely remained silent backers of the fascists through the Economic League, an organization that plays an important part in the series in exchanging support “in high places” to Tommy Shelby at critical points in return for “favours,” namely targeted killings.

Founded in 1919, the Economic League in Britain was also a historical entity, a real McCarthyist entity organized by aristocratic landowners, industrialists, intelligence and army officers to counter lower class “subversion” and attacks on the free enterprise system of wealth accumulation. It was founded by Reginald Hall, who had been Director of Naval Intelligence under Winston, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. In 1925, as depicted in the series, the Economic League played a critical role in breaking the United Kingdom general strike of 1926 depicted in the third series.

In the second series, Churchill directs Campbell, then a Director of Intelligence, to find an assassin. Campbell traps Tommy Shelby into carrying out the assassination of Field Marshal Henry Russell. John Shelby initially drops an explosive device through the letter slot, and this seemed to shift the place of the assassination to Epsom Downs so that Tommy Shelby could escape the trap set for him by Campbell.

I presume, but I am not sure, that the Field Marshall was Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, who was a Unionist politician briefly and played a role in the suppression of the IRA in the 1919-1921 war. He was assassinated in June of 1922 by two IRA gunmen, not the Peaky Blinders, and it was on his doorstep, not Epson Downs. Poetic license?

But why would Churchill organize such an assassination in the first place? At the end of 1921, the British and the provisional Irish government signed a treaty to create The Irish Free State. Just as in Peaky Binders, efforts were made by the Economic League to sabotage both this treaty and British relations with the USSR by pinning the blowing up of the train carrying arms to the Italians in Libya onto the communists who were funded by Moscow. Churchill was adamantly opposed both to Irish independence and British relations with the communist USSR. The assassination of Wilson helped ignite the Irish Civil War in 1922.

Plausible, but I am doubtful if it was historically true, but it could have been. In any case, if Tommy Selby knew of this and revealed this British scandal, the results would have been far more devastating in Britain than the Contra Scandal was years later in America. This meant that Tommy Selby did indeed hold a Sword of Damocles over the power of the upper classes.

Even more realistic is the later plot in the series when Winston allegedly wanted to subvert the Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald who had taken power in 1924. That government sought to forge closer ties with the USSR. Churchill was dedicated to “strangling Bolshevism in its cradle” and freeing Britain of communist-controlled unions. An incident in which the Reds, financed by Moscow, would be blamed for blowing up an English train could easily have brought down the MacDonald government.

Peaky Blinders is about rejecting genteel multiculturalism at the same time as one takes the centre of politics to be about identity rather than class or capital. Thus, in voting, people vote and sacrifice for their tribe even if against their self-interest. In this model of politics, we have a reflection again of the rising right as was the case one hundred years ago. We also have a situation where politics is a matter of traps, of Machiavellianism and deceit as necessary means to get out of blind ends.

They are traps because, whether in the Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Brexit, vicious gangs in the Philippines, nuclear proliferation, climate change debates pitching jobs against apparently doomsday scenarios following climate change, two opposing and mutual exclusive alternatives are put forth. Tommy Shelby’s brilliance is his ability to think non-ideologically and laterally for a way out of the trap, in his case, much worse, more of a tunnel. If you are innovative, if you are clever enough, if you are far-seeing, there is often a third way around a trap.

Is the international system merely one alliance of gangs at war with a different set of ruthless allies? Donald Trump would have us believe not only that it is so, but that this is the only reality.  He would have us all believe that we are trapped with no exit from the forces of bigotry and self-interest.

Gangsters: Peaky Blinders – Part I of II

If you are going to understand Noah and his character, if you are going to understand the building of the ark and the flood that followed, if you are going to understand the Tower of Babel (Migdal Bavel) tale and effort to have everyone speak the same language and have the same thoughts in contrast to a world of linguistic differences and tribal warfare, if you are going to understand Noah’s downfall afterwards as a vintner and drunk, if you are going to understand why Ham, who saw his father naked and spread the word (he was a snitch), and Shem and Japheth covered up their father and refused to look at what was in front of their eyes, if you want to understand the world they inherited and the role Abram played, in contrast to Noah’s expression of the banality of goodness, to radically change it you have to understand what immediately preceded it all.

What preceded it all was the fifth generation after Cain killed his brother, Abel. You have to understand the generation of a murderer like Lamech. And to understand Lamech, it is helpful to understand both gangsters and how they are portrayed in movies and television series.

In Genesis in the accounting of Cain’s descendants (Genesis 4:17- 22), Cain begets Enoch (cities are formed) who begat Irad who begat Mehujael who begat Methusael who begat Lamech (a gangster) who begat Jubal (a nomad) and a brother who played music and, via a second wife, Zillah, Tubal-Cain who was a blacksmith forging instruments of copper and iron. Seven generations in all.  It is the sixth that interests me here, five generations after Cain.

Lamech confessed to both his wives, Adah and Zillah, that he killed someone who had wounded him, as well as a second person, a younger lad for bruising him. (4:23). Then he pronounced the rule that governed his conduct. “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-seven fold.” (4:24) Was killing people who slight or cross him revenge for what Cain did, for what was done to Cain (possible), or was it a vow made that, in contrast to God who would only deliver punishment sevenfold, he was far more ruthless and would do so seventy-seven fold?

First, vengeance was possible because of superiority in armaments. Lamech had a son who forged advanced weapons of metal. Of the blacksmith’s two step brothers, one was a nomad and the other a musician, alternative lifestyles where success is not pursued as a life goal, or, at least, success measured in material accumulation and social as distinct from artistic status.

There is a parallel development. Adam and Eve had a third son besides Cain and Abel. His name was Seth and he had a son Enosh, which means man. From the first line of births emerged a search for recognition and status and a willingness to murder if necessary for it, as well as two alternative anti-social paths into aesthetics or a nomadic life. From the second line emerged man proper (the meaning of Enosh) who was the first to invoke the Lord by name. He was religious. We thus have four lines:

  1. An industrial inventor, and the gangster who was not only dependent upon him, but like him, for he eschewed aesthetics, travel and religion;
  2. A musician;
  3. A rootless nomad;
  4. A religious man.

The inventive industrialist or businessman is simply the acceptable side of the gangster. Both have in common a search for status and recognition. Both also have in common a determination to achieve their objectives and often to sacrifice social norms to do so. Both sides can be expressed as two sides of the same Janus-faced character. Gangsters live by revenge and killing. Businessmen try to achieve the same results within the realm of society’s laws. And there is the range in between.

To flesh out the meaning and significance of this way of life, it is helpful to go beyond the terse language of the Torah to the tough world of gangsters. One series that surpasses The Godfather films is the Netflix British series, Peaky Blinders, set firmly in the industrial town of Birmingham with the lead Gypsy gangster of the family, “the godfather,” Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy. (I have yet to see The Wire or Boardwalk Empire or Hell on Wheels so I cannot make any comparison to those series.) However, rooting the series in the immediate post-WWI period, in the poverty of the twenties, in the PTSD of the survivors of the war and, most of all, in the rivalries between Imperial Britain, Communist Russia and, more removed, the evangelical America and its ineffectual efforts at prohibition, offer a very distinctive flavour and larger than life sense to the narrative.

Given the series brilliant cast in all of its characters, given the settings, the music, the cinematography and lighting, the costumes, the direction and, most of all, the brilliant script, even if you watch Peaky Blinders as simply a gangster film, it is well worth the time. But at least pay attention to the oxymoron of the title which, in literal terms refers to the peaks of workers caps and the razors sewn into them by the gangsters to blind their opponents. But peaky refers to a glancing look into that of which we are also blind.

Tommy Selby is often portrayed walking down a road in Birmingham with blast furnaces in the background. It is a depiction of hell. It is where he belongs, but also aspires to leave and enter the normal world of purportedly non-vengeful civility. He learns that the world he aspires to join is akin to the same one he occupies, but his is naked.

In the series, the gangster life is both ascetic and carnal. Like Lamech, monogamy was not part of the equation, even in the case of Tommy Shelby who had a deep love for his first girlfriend before he went off to war and for his wife Grace (Annabelle Wallis) – the meaning of her name is patently clear. He met his wife when she was serving as a spy for the British Secret Service, like Zillah, the shady. Grace dies when she tried to shade Tommy Shelby from being murdered by someone seeking vengeance.

What stands out in Tommy Shelby’s character is his inventiveness, his industriousness, his creativity, his ability to respond quickly, not only to opportunities but to moments that would bring anyone else to the point of despair. And it is clear that Tommy Shelby is after the material accoutrements of power and position, and loves the adoration and respect he receives from those who both respect and fear him. He is also determined. What he so explicitly lacks is any respect for God or fear of death – a characteristic that makes him so successful as a gangster. As Polly Shelby (Helen McCrory), his aunt, says, when you stick your head in a noose and come out the other side, then you are free. For you are totally unafraid to die. All life after the noose is a bonus.

Tommy Shelby’s inventiveness, his creativity, his ability to plot and scheme in the face of the maneouvers of more powerful adversaries, however, proves over and over again to be insufficient. He is merciless, he is ruthless, in his efforts. And what seems to make it all possible is that he was a tunneller or sapper, the most dangerous military assignment in WWI, a war hero in WWI in France, practiced in the arts of digging tunnels under his enemies and blowing their tunnels up. But a tunnel collapsed on him. However, he was resurrected from what seemed a certain death.

Tommy Shelby, like Lamech, would not and did seek the favour and acknowledgement of God. Nor would he succumb to self-pity like Cain when God recognized another. Further, like Adam and Eve, like Cain who would lie to God and say he did not know where his brother was after he had killed him, Tom Selby could really lie. In fact, his whole art of fighting his rivals depended on deceit and trapping them. Hence the ending of the fourth series which I watched last evening. But in one other and more important respect he was very much like Cain. Cain also uttered the categorical imperative of the foundation of gangsterism – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is more than an oxymoron; it is a double entendre.

The question is very ambiguous. On the one hand it could put forth the conviction that my brother’s well-being is not my responsibility. I am not my brother’s keeper. On the other hand, there is the implication that being one’s brother’s keeper is a moral norm which God would impose, namely, that we are responsible for everyone else on the planet. We are our brothers’ keepers. But there is a third meaning – I am my brother’s keeper because it is only my blood brothers whom I can trust. Everyone else is potentially my enemy. Anyone who hurts or threatens my kin will be killed. Anyone who insults or slights my kin may also be killed. For what we want for our family is respect.

The most successful gangsters are the ones who are their brother’s keepers and build the family criminal business on the foundation of an enormous pool of trust between and among brothers and, more broadly, others who become part of the family. Lose that family, lose that trust and you open yourself to becoming a victim rather than a winner – again see the final episode of the first four series. Gangsterism, in the end, is a family business. To avoid Cain’s fate, to avoid his father’s fate that was built on the destruction of brotherly love, to avoid becoming like his father, a rootless traveller who would easily cheat his own children, he develops this third expression of brotherly love into a fine art.

Unlike Cain, no burden was too great to bear, no weighty decision and no brutal beating. Cain cannot settle down and become a successful farmer but must expose himself to a brutish world. God offers Cain protection; no one will kill you, God promises. Anyone who does will be avenged seven times. But for Lamech, he will be the avenger. If anyone tries to kill him or his family, he will be avenged seventy-seven times. Further, like Lamech, Thomas Selby is continually and repeatedly addressing his brothers and other family members; “Hear my voice. Hearken unto my speech.” Not God’s. The family meetings, the one-on-one asides, are all critical to the operation of the family business.

If one son is a musician, Lamech is at base a poet, a creative artist. In the Torah, what we read is an ode of Hebrew parallelism in rhythm, sentiment and style. It matches the practical choices of two roads that diverge in a wood and Tommy must always choose one, and never the obvious one. There is a rhythmic pacing caught on film in the collective walks of the women and men down the road of the blast furnaces or housing estates of Birmingham. Among such ruthless gangsters, it is almost shocking, but totally convincing, how much sentiment and caring ties them all together. Further, each even dresses in a paradoxical style, of higher and richer style as they rapidly grow wealthier, but never leaving behind the working class caps that define their socially low origins.

The family business is originally based on illegal numbers and betting. Through the series, it gradually morphs into more and more legitimate businesses as they acquire pubs and then racetracks and then industrial factories and housing estates. Always, they are practical. Always, they pursue the thing of this life and disdain any so-called higher calling. In fact, the most despicable characters in the series – the head of the British secret service, Chief Inspector Chester Campbell played by Sam Neill and Father John Hughes (Paddy Considine), a corrupt priest and child molester – are not the most sinister ones.

Though sinister, the Cockney leader of the Jewish gang on Canary Wharf in London, Alfie Solomons, and Charles “Darby” Sabini, the leader of the largest Italian mob in London, are not despicable. They weave their respective Jewish and Catholic religions into their murderous lives but make no claim that they are acting on behalf of God. Chief Inspector Campbell (promoted to Chief of Staff for British Intelligence in the second series) and Father Hughes are outright hypocrites. As Chief Inspector Campbell intones, “I have the love of God, and the certainty of salvation,” even as his fury, resentment and betrayals shame the devil.

Tommy Selby never makes any such claim. When his older brother Arthur, under the influence of his wife, wants to move in that direction, Tommy Shelby subverts it with the attraction of money, of sex and of brotherly solidarity.

Aside from the absolutely marvellous acting among the many varied characters – other than Tom Selby, I liked who played the Cockney London gangster Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy) with a pithy richness and a vocabulary derived from both the Torah and the streets, and Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody), the Italian gangster from New York bent on revenge for the death of his father and brother at the hands of the gypsy gang, the Peaky Blinders, led by Tom Shelby. The story is triply rich because it is: a) historically rooted and b) reflects the view that the so-called civilized world is simply the world of family rivalries writ large and with a genteel patella. (See Part II of this blog)

For example, in the fourth and last episode of the series, with each series consisting of eight 45 minute episodes, Vicente Changretta, if you google him, was a leader of the Changretta mob in New York involved in the illegal liquor business during prohibition and in a continuing rivalry with Al Capone’s mob. Vicente went to Birmingham, England, the city controlled by the Peaky Blinders, to attend his cousin’s wedding. He and his son, Angel, were gunned down by the local Birmingham mob in their conflict with an Italian mob from London. This was the source of the vendetta and Luca Changretta’s determination to avenge his brother’s and his father’s deaths and became the most serious threat to the Shelbys and their family business.

To understand the real depth of the series in both actual history as well as profound myth, it is important to trace the full range of how this series is written both into real history as well as a universal trope of mankind. (Part II)


With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part V – Impacts on Israel and the Palestinian Authority

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.


Fern Mednick

My mother and my Aunt Gladys were not only sisters, they were best friends. They had worked along side one another as teenagers and took holidays together as older adults. Because I have often been out of the country, we have spent only about 60 Passover dinners with the Garelick family, the married name of my aunt. Yesterday morning, not long after my blog was sent out, I received a phone call from my late Aunt Gladys’ son-in-law. We shared the same name, Howard. He was in his car on his way to the Baycrest palliative care unit. Fern, my first cousin, my Aunt Gladys’ only daughter, Howard’s wife, had just died. An official notice of death and her picture can be found on the Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel web site.

Fern will be buried this morning. The shiva will be held at her daughter Jordana’s home, where, for the last decade or so, we have celebrated Passover and broken the fast on Rosh Hashana, succeeding the rituals once conducted in her parents’ home. I will spend the rest of this week there saying Kaddish each evening. It will be a very different time than the ones spent watching the two daughters of Jordana and her husband, Bram, and the two daughters of Jordana’s brother, Avi, and his wife, Jessica, perform and dance and sing at every festival. Rachel, Amy, Sammy and Leigh will miss having their Bubbie in their lives when they pass into their teenage years.

Fern had a brother, Steve, her only sib. Steve is married to Carol. They too have children. And grandchildren. They too will be at the funeral along with other friends and relatives.  But the focus will be on the begats, on those whom Fern and Howard begat.

Fern and Howard had three children. In addition to Avi, the eldest, Jordana, the youngest, there was Danny, the middle child. Fern has been a physiotherapist and Howard remained an athlete to this day. Avi, their son, was a champion swimmer who went to an American university on a swimming scholarship. Though Danny was born with handicaps in the use of one arm and leg, he swam and went horseback riding. He was always taught to do the best he could. And he did. He matured to become a confident adult who was self-reliant with an amazing warm and wispy smile. Jordana, who was for a few years my youngest children’s Hebrew teacher and subsequently the principal organizer for the TV show that I produced and hosted, first became a teacher and is now a personal trainer.

The horrible irony was that the mother in this very fit family in every sense of the word, that Fern, my smiling cousin who competed with her mother Gladys in baking the best deserts I ever ate, particularly the cinnamon buns of my Aunt Gladys, died of Parkinson’s disease. Since she fell backwards on the stairs after working out in her basement a few years ago, we have watched her body betray her, gradually at first and then far more swiftly this past year when she has been unable to walk, dress, feed herself and, in the last few months, had become a crippled and bent over version of her former lively and energetic self.

My brother Al would have been 82 in three days. This same month, 4 days earlier, but in 1999 and not 2018, my brother died. It was a horrible death that took over a year as a blastoma ate away his brain, his senses, his motor controls, his memory and his thought processes. At the end, for months he was in a coma.

This morning I had a dream. I was sleeping in someone else’s bed in a house that was like the one we lived in when I was ten years old. I had heard a loud noise on the stairs. My wife did not wake up in the narrow bed on which we were sleeping. She continued to sleep under her covers with her back to me. And, try as I might, I could not remember who my wife was.

I went out of the room. My younger brother, Stan, appeared from another room. Together we went to find the source of the noise. It was my older brother noisily coming up the stairs. But he did not look like Al. He looked like my grandson Jacob, a bit confused and lost. And I suddenly noticed that my brother Stan looked like my grandson, Micah. But he did not act like the bouncy Micah we both knew. Jacob and Micah’s middle brother was Sasha. I must have looked like him. When I checked in a mirror, he was very angry. He looked enraged.

Fern’s death makes me angry. I should not feel anger, but I do. Yesterday, I tried to recall memories of when I babysat her and her brother, Steve. I tried to recall our times together when they were children and I was a teenager. I could not. I could remember our families together at many seder tables, but no sooner did the memory come up than it was crowded out by images of my cousin crippled up in her wheel chair. I could remember Fern and Howard coming up to the cottage with Jordana and Bram and loads of bread, bagels and sliced deli meats. I could remember Fern going for a swim. But those memories seemed so fleeting compared to the ones of this last year.

I am angry that the latest memories are so painful and push aside the earlier very happy moments. I am angry that it is not only my memories of my cousin, but that so many other parts of reality have been forced out of place. Her death in my mind expands into historical significance.

In economics, higher interest rates reduce or “crowd out” private investment and, hence, growth. Similarly, bad memories reduce our ability to access the good ones which encourage us to thrive. Fortunately, Howard, who, over the last few years, spent time with Fern in the care unit of Baycrest every day, has recently discovered a new vocation – teaching music appreciation in a novel way. He now has his first paid gig at Ryerson University. Fortunately, as well, at the funeral and at the shiva, the family will regroup. Together, the good memories will come back and we will all rejoice in Fern’s life.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part IV – Right of Return and Hamas

Hamas, Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement, took over the Gaza Strip through the ballot box in 2007. It was founded when the PLO in the late 1980s began considering making peace and recognizing Israel. Other than the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that informs its ethics and conduct, unlike the PLO, Hamas has a historical reputation for honesty and integrity. It also adamantly opposed, not simply the recognition of Israel, but Israel’s existence. Hamas has fought three major wars with Israel in a decade in power.

Hamas is most closely associated in ideology with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which occupied Gaza until 1967.  For many observers, the puzzle is why Hamas has been so dogmatically antithetical to the existence of Israel when it initially was supported by Israel as an alternative to the PLO because Hamas was not then belligerent in its dealings with Israel. That was clearly Israel’s mistake, for its 1988 charter explicitly states as its goal the elimination of Israel. That is why Hamas has been so unswerving on insisting on the right of return, for Hamas agrees with Israel that the return of millions of Palestinians would mean the end of Israel.

Initially, when its military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, engaged in cross-border raids and suicide bombings, Israel branded Hamas as a terrorist organization. That was soon after its founding shortly after the First Intifada However, during the Second Intifada at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Hamas became more of a standing army in Gaza, initially by launching rocket attacks against Israel and, once it took control of Gaza, engaging in open warfare. When Israel moved from reprisals to invasions after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas, instead of trying to construct a peaceful polity side-by-side Israel, used the territory as a launching pad for military excursions across the border.

There have been many discussions about why Ariel Sharon decided to uproot the Israeli settlements in Gaza and launch a unilateral withdrawal, or, as it was called, a disengagement. Demographic consideration was the main one, that is, keeping Israeli control only in areas with a preponderance of Israelis. Hamas dubbed it an “expulsion” or Hitnatkut.

The idea of unilateral withdrawal was first proposed by the Left in Israel in the conviction that, once the government in Gaza assumed responsibility for the territory and its inhabitants, it would be tamed by its new responsibilities. Sharon’s son, Gilad, took credit for proposing the plan to his father. Hamas would be less prone to engaging in military activities. Ariel Sharon adopted the idea in 2003 and had it approved by the Knesset in 2004.

The expectations proved to be wrong, especially after Hamas won the elections in 2006 and broke with the Palestinian Authority in rejecting the Oslo Accords and any reconciliation with Israel. Truces were OK, but not peace.

Why then did the Palestinians in Gaza give Hamas their support when opinion surveys showed that a majority of Palestinians in Gaza supported peace with Israel? There are several reasons. First, though a majority of Palestinians in Gaza supported peace and many Gazans wanted to continue their practice of working in Israel, a majority of Palestinian refugees opposed making such a peace. Palestinians with refugee roots constituted over half the population of Gaza. A very large majority of the indigenous population of Gaza supported peace to offset the majority of Palestinian refugees opposed to peace.

However, the attitude to Israel and the fundamentalist religious streak do not alone account for the rise to power of Hamas. Hamas defined itself as honest, as the champion of the rights of the downtrodden and deprived and as an alternative to the corrupt and condescending PLO rooted much more strongly in the indigenous population.  In January 2006, Hamas won a plurality of seats from Gaza to the Palestinian Parliament. Economic pressure tactics by financial donors then became serious and further aid was made conditional on recognition of Israel and the adoption of non-violence. Instead, Hamas upped the ante and by 2007 had taken over control of the security forces in Gaza in the 2007 Battle of Gaza. The economic pressure tactics did not work and, in fact, helped bring about the opposite, a government in Gaza committed to belligerency against Israel.

When the PLO and the Palestinian Authority civil servants were ousted from their positions in Gaza, Israel with the backing of the U.S. and Egypt, imposed a blockade. Successive efforts of Hamas to forge a reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority have been unsuccessful. Even when agreements were signed, there were claims by each side that the other was not living up to the terms of the reconciliation agreement.

At a deeper level, Hamas had won status as the authentic representatives of the Palestinian soul even when this was at odds with any pragmatic peace agreement. The Hamas network of social services on the ground helped it earn the trust of those most in need, aided considerably by extensive external support from Turkey with the accession of Tayyip Erdoğan to power.

A final factor at a deeper level made Hamas more intransigent. If Abbas in the West Bank had a record of minimizing the Holocaust and of latent antisemitism. Hamas had a record of Holocaust denial and of blatant antisemitism. Hamas declared war on UNRWA in 2009 when it planned to include references to the Holocaust in its text books. UNRWA ran two-thirds of the schools in Gaza and Hamas accused UNRWA of running a rival government. What would have happened if we had succeeded in redirecting funds for UNRWA to the government of Gaza as part of the peace process and ending the preservation of Palestinian refugees as a separate constituency?

erhaps the results of Hamas control would have been no different since UNRWA folded under Hamas pressure and deleted the “offensive” passages from its text books. Further, this breakout towards independence stood out as an exception, for none of the UNRWA schools in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria had made any such effort. This was also true of the schools under UNRWA auspices in The West Bank then controlled by the IDF with regard to security.

UNRWA tried to introduce objective history However, UNRWA folded in other ways, in allowing its schools and hospitals to be used by Hamas militants as “safe havens” for arms and soldiers who had been wounded as well as for planning operations in its successive wars against Israel. The effort to make UNRWA more independent and objective backfired and UNRWA operations de facto fell under the thumb of Hamas in total contradiction to its supposed international control.

Hamas efforts to control UNWRA reached a successful pinnacle in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s cancellation of American grants to UNRWA. The sweeping cuts were used to lay off mostly excess staff and reduce the payroll to bring wages more in line with prevailing Gazan wage scales. The UNRWA Gaza headquarters were seized in reprisal. Most of the international staff and the families of international staff members fled to Israel. This forced UNRWA to issue a statement that its Gazan headquarters had been “partially occupied;” in reality, the Gaza headquarters then came directly under the control of Hamas.

In open breach of an impartiality rule supposedly governing UNRWA, Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, visited the seized headquarters, even though Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the EU and the US, was explicitly banned from entry. In sum, the cancellation of US donations to UNRWA had resulted in enhanced control of the portion of UNRWA serving the largest numbers of Palestinians.

In ten years, from 2008 to 2018, U.S. contributions had shot up from $96 million to $350 million and from 12% of its budget to almost 30%. That era ended abruptly in August. The indirect result was the integration of UNRWA operations in Gaza into one under the control of Hamas, even if formally kept separate. It is difficult to see at this point how this could possibly benefit the peace process.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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.

Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part II: Humanitarian Implications

I will discuss the cancellation of financial support for UNRWA by Donald Trump under the following impact headings over the next five blogs:

  1. UNRWA as a Humanitarian Organization
  2. UNRWA’s humanitarian program
  3. Refugee self-sufficiency versus dependency
  4. UNRWA: Corruption and Inefficiency
  5. Politics of the Region – Palestinians
  6. Change in the economic and political status of Palestinian refugees
  7. The Right of Return
  8. The PA and Hamas
  9. Politics of States in the Region
  10. Israel
  11. Arab states
  12. Palestinians in American Politics
  13. American refugee policy
  14. American domestic politics
  15. American Foreign Policy
  16. International Regimes
  17. The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process
  18. The International Refugee Regime
  19. Refugee Resettlement Countries


  1. UNRWA’s Humanitarian Program

Pierre Krähenbuehl, UNRWA’s Commissioner General, said that the effort to remove the refugee issue from the peace negotiations by cutting funds to UNRWA would a) not succeed and b) create an unprecedented financial crisis for UNRWA. Indeed, the action was unprecedented and it was explicitly done to remove the issue of the right of return from the negotiations. And it was a crisis, but not a cataclysmic one. A hysterical headline in Haaretz claimed that in Gaza alone $200 million in food aid would be needed, with the implication that this was a result of the cancellation of the American contributions to UNRWA. Gaza might possibly need $200 million in food aid, but very little of that problem is a result of the cancellation of the UNRWA contribution from the U.S.

Approximately one and a quarter million of the registered Palestinian refugees live in Gaza, about 25% of the total. America cut $350 million in support, therefore roughly $87 million from Gaza. 54% of the funds go to education and 17% to health. Of the remaining 29%, over half goes to administration and 4% is allocated for infrastructure improvements. That leaves 9% for relief and social services. Though unlikely, assume for a moment that every cent of the latter money goes to food aid, that would amount to less than a $9 million dollar cut in food aid, not $200 million. The latter figure confuses general aid to Gaza with food aid for the refugees in Gaza. The real cut means an annual decrease per registered refugee in Gaza of just over $7.

When I lived in Dadaab refugee camp as a comparison, when the food intake was already only sufficient for 1,600 calories a day, the food supplied was cut to 1,400 calories a day per day, a cut of 12% from an already starvation rate with virtually no sources to make up the difference. In Gaza, the cuts do not come from a food intake at the starvation level and the amount of the cut re food aid is relatively miniscule.

Further, other resources have been offered to at least partially offset the losses. In 2018, Gulf states, Norway and Canada have stepped in with a total of $200 million to help meet a planned $465 million budget for Gaza in general, not just UNRWA. Donors, such as Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, have also come forward. And Krähenbuehl has, to the best of my knowledge, not yet asked Germany, France, Sweden and Britain for an increase in contributions.

The real impact is not on food, except for a small number of hardship cases, but on education and health services, the two major portions of the UNRWA budget. This is in direct contrast with the UNHCR budget, in which food aid constitutes the major portion of expenditures on refugees. UNRWA educates a half million children. Its primary health services are up to the standards of the host countries, especially with regard to infant and maternal mortality. In addition, UNRWA’s Microfinance Programme begun at the beginning of the 1990s is renowned and now offers over 10,000 small loans per year.

The reality is that the educational and health programs of UNRWA were so successful that general dependence on relief evaporated. The refugees had mostly become self-reliant, though it took until the late 1980’s for the general ration program to be replaced by a selective hardship program. In the interim, for forty years, the exchange and sale of ration cards had become an integral part of the economy of the Palestinian refugee camps.

The reality is that UNRWA emerged as the education, health and welfare ministry for the registered Palestinian refugees. Of UNRWA’s 30,000 employees, the vast majority are teachers. None of this takes away from the economic pressures on Gaza and particularly on the poorest segment of its population, the refugees in Gaza resulting from the partial blockade imposed on Gaza. But that blockade does not apply to food or necessities. Further, monies that should have been spent on infrastructure upgrades, such as water and electrical supplies as well as sanitation, let alone health and education, were diverted to episodic bouts of violent conflict.

  1. Refugee Self-sufficiency versus Dependency 

Will the cuts encourage self-sufficiency versus dependency? Self-sufficiency is not only the mantra of the Trump administration; it is now the slogan of refugee NGOs and international agencies around the world. As Elizabeth Ferris, a refugee scholar of international renown, wrote, “Increasingly, NGOs are turning to supporting refugees in becoming self-reliant so that they can ‘graduate’ from humanitarian aid. Even when refugees are not legally able to work, many do so in the informal sector and NGOs are increasingly supporting programs of refugee livelihoods.” Self-reliance is “the social and economic ability of an individual, household, or community to meet its essential needs in a sustainable manner.”

However, the Trump cuts undercut transitional programs to foster self-reliance. Further, there is a failure to recognize that UNRWA has all along been fostering self-reliance through its educational efforts. At least in Gaza, the refugees do not need work permits. However, it is the political-economic and military context, not aid, that undercuts self-reliance. That is what the Trump regime wants to change. Boycotts and other trade measures rather that humanitarian and development aid are intended to shift the political goalposts and enhance a greater willingness to make peace on other than the terms that have been the foundation of the Palestinian polity. There is no clear evidence that this strategy will work.

Self-reliance is unequivocally superior to long-term care and maintenance programs and warehousing refugees. But it may be that a shock rather than a programmatic approach may enhance desperation, extremism and an increased propensity to take up arms. Certainly, there is little evidence that changes in funding effect the chances of a permanent solution to a refugee problem.

The reasons are obvious. Only 3% of refugees in the world find a permanent solution and over 80% of them do so by returning home when a conflict is over. But the vast majority do not go home and virtually none return when the enemies they fought were from a different ethnic group or religion and were the victors.

The Palestinian refugee situation in this regard is radically different. Of the current 5.2 million registered Palestinian refugees under UNRWA auspices, all but one million live in territories governed in part or whole by Palestinians, half in Jordan and the other half in the West Bank and Gaza. A peace, or even a pre-peace, which settled the refugees in situ would resolve 80% of the Palestinian refugee problem. Further, refugees once ejected from Kuwait and who fled Iraq and then Syria during their respective wars, as well as many refugees in Lebanon, could be resettled in Palestine.

  1. UNRWA: Corruption and Inefficiency 

In no other refugee situation has the mandate of the organization evolved to be a continuing one, that is, to be kept in place if, and only if, a “just” and comprehensive solution emerged for the Palestinian refugee population as a whole. In that sense, UNRWA was founded on a corrupt premise. In other cases, refugee situations are often resolved independently of a peace agreement. Thus, there is no peace agreement on the Korean peninsula, but the situation of the refugees was resolved over a half century ago through resettlement following the armistice in the inter-Korean war. UNRWA, in contrast, was established as an alternative to repatriation envisioned by its short-lived predecessor, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), but has evolved into an organization resistant to settlement in the first country of asylum where 80% of the refugees live.

The second element of financial rather than mandate corruption, typical in many if not most refugee flights, was the inflation in the refugee counts to attract more donor funds to allow for a sufficient level to assist the refugees. Instead of 720,000 registered Palestinian refugees, UNRWA had on its original roster 960,000 refugees, a basic count that took decades to correct. The emergence of the trading in ration cards mentioned above provided the other leg to built-in corruption in UNRWA.

Thirdly, conceptual corruption emerged within the first year or two of UNRWA’s operations when it emerged that works and relief projects, such as hydro dams in Iraq, and emigration of all Palestinian refugees to the development area, were not feasible on either political or economic grounds, though it took until the Suez crisis to bury that vision of resettlement. Continuing antagonism among Arab states as well as with Israel, lack of the substantive funds needed, and mostly the commitment of both the refugees and Arab states to return via the elimination of Israel, doomed such hopes.

A fourth element of corruption emerged when education replaced emergency assistance as the major program ingredient of UNRWA, not in the education itself, but in the political messages woven into that education concerning return and Israel. This element, unlike the others, has grown worse over the years, not better, and contributes to the resistance to peace among Palestinians that is strongest in the camps. On the other hand, as I have indicated above, education has been an overwhelming success as measured in school attendance, literacy rates, levels of education and training, gender equality, and facilitating access to advanced and professional education. UNRWA currently operates about 700 schools.

There is a fifth element entailed in political corruption and the continuation and even expansion of UNRWA programs that undermine the ability of a Palestine political regime to integrate health, education and welfare programs in the regions where there is Palestinian shared or full governance – Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza where most refugees live. In the Oslo years, moves were made to harmonize and partially integrate UNRWA and Palestinian Authority and Jordanian health, education and welfare operations with a view to eventual integration. This has since been severely set back.

None of these problems should take away from other positive aspects of UNWRA’s operations in addition to health, education, infrastructure improvements and microfinance, such as the development of its emergency response capacities (for understandable reasons), its vastly improved decentralized management, longer term planning, financial accountability using results-based measures and not just accurate bookkeeping, and the innovations introduced over the last two decades to enhance the protection of human rights.

The implication of the above is that bringing a broad hammer approach to UNRWA funding with charges of inefficiency and corruption seems out of order for the main problems are conceptual, structural and political. UNRWA is not by any general measure an economically corrupt and inefficient organization whatever its problems. One may want to wind UNRWA up, largely for political reasons, and there are certain to be pockets of corruption and inefficiencies endemic to large organizations, but general charges of corruption and inefficiency are slogans rather than reasons for reducing aid to UNRWA.


With the help of Alex Zisman

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