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Netanyahu support for Trump on UNRWA exposes political-military divide.

Why We Wrote This

Israelis love to disparage the UN refugee agency for Palestinians as a political arm of the Palestinians. But the Israeli government’s support of President Trump’s new policy flies in the face of the view of its own security establishment.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Palestinian employees of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) have their hands chained as they wear orange jumpsuits during a protest against job cuts by UNRWA, in Gaza City September 19, 2018.

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The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East – established to care for Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war – has long been a punching bag for Israeli politicians. But embracing the new US policy to end $350 million in annual aid actually marks a shift for Israel. It upends a 50-year-old accommodationist policy that considers UNRWA’s social welfare work – for all its political warts – to be a stabilizing force. The policy change has sharpened a debate in Israel that pits the political goal of rolling back Palestinian demands for a “right of return” for refugees against the security interest of preventing violence in the territories. By some expert accounts, weakening UNRWA could encourage radicals in Gaza, where unemployment is around 50 percent, and weaken the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank. “The instability risked by the UNRWA cut could … create more friction with the civilian population,” says Peter Lerner, a reserve Israeli military spokesman who also worked with the agency that liaises with UNRWA. “The military will have to deal with counter-terrorism, and it will divert focus from Israel’s biggest threats: Iran and Hezbollah.”

When the Trump administration announced last month it would immediately cut all US aid for the UN refugee agency for Palestinians, UNRWA, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately hailed it as a “praiseworthy” and “important” decision.

Established to care for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East has long been a punching bag for Israeli politicians. They denounce it as a political arm of the Palestinians that perpetuates demands for a return of millions of registered refugees to Israel.

But embracing the new US policy to end $350 million in annual aid actually marks a shift for Israel. It upends a 50-year old accommodationist policy supported by the defense establishment, which considers UNRWA’s social welfare work – for all its political warts – as a stabilizing force among some 2.1 million registered refugees in the West Bank and Gaza.

“This is a pretty big change in policy. It was done over the objections of the security establishment,’’ says Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University and the founder of NGO Monitor. “For many years there has been discussion among members of Congress of cutting the budget to UNRWA, and each time the Israeli government has said, ‘Don’t do that, we are in favor of the status quo.’ ’’

The policy change toward UNRWA has sharpened a debate in Israel that pits the political goal of rolling back Palestinian demands for a “right of return” for refugees against the security interest of preventing unrest and violence in the Palestinian territories. That is especially so in impoverished, Hamas-ruled Gaza – scene of many deadly confrontations this year and three recent wars – where more than half of the population of 2 million are eligible for UNRWA assistance.

According to UNRWA, which operates in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, the population of Palestinian refugees and their descendants numbers more than 5 million. When Israel conquered the Palestinian territories in the 1967 Six-Day War, it actually signed an agreement with the United Nations allowing the agency to continue to administer schools, food assistance, and other social services in refugee districts. The subsequent relationship has been described as an “uneasy marriage of convenience.”

“Every single Israeli government has permitted UNRWA to operate. When it is so enmeshed in Palestinian society, ordering an abrupt aid cut can lead to catastrophic consequences for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” says Peter Lerner, a reserve Israeli military spokesman who also was the spokesman for the army agency that liaises with UNRWA.

Weakening UNRWA would encourage radicals in Gaza, where unemployment is around 50 percent and most residents rely on food assistance, and weaken the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank.

“The instability risked by the UNRWA cut could require the IDF to mobilize more forces in the West Bank and create more friction with the civilian population,” Mr. Lerner says. “The military will have to deal with counter-terrorism, and it will divert focus from Israel’s biggest threats: Iran and Hezbollah.”

A headline from Israel’s Walla! news website framed the issue in starker terms: “The Security Threat from the Cut to UNRWA: When Hundreds of Thousands of Hungry Gazans Run to the Border Fence.”

On Wednesday, thousands of UNRWA staff demonstrated in Gaza City to protest cuts to the organization’s activities.

In Gaza’s refugee camps, garbage collections have been cut back and officials have warned of environmental fallout from the cuts to UNRWA.

President Trump “can’t come and say that I will delete your dream of return,’’ says Hassan Jaber, a journalist who lives in Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp. “The next generation will continue fighting, until they achieve their right of return. We don’t want to make war with Israelis, but we want our rights.”

Defunding US aid to UNRWA is part of a larger policy to pare back financial assistance in order to pressure the Palestinian leadership on the moribund peace process. In recent months, the US has cut aid to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, ended support for Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem, and most recently, programs for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.

According to some Israeli analysts, Israel’s support for UNRWA’s role had become an orthodoxy that calcified Israeli thinking on how to handle the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Preserving UNRWA because of its service-provider function is a “cash register approach,” said Einat Wilf, a former Labor member of parliament and a leading UNRWA critic who co-authored a Hebrew book entitled “The War of Return.”

Wilf and other Israelis argue that UNRWA has perpetuated the refugee issue by preventing Palestinians’ resettlement outside of Israel, recognizing subsequent generations as refugees as well, and cultivating claims for millions of Palestinians to return to ancestral homes inside Israel.

The UN agency has “cultivated a Palestinian nationalism that is single-mindedly focused on this idea of return and of undoing Israel – of going back to before 1947,” Wilf said in a recent interview with the Israel advocacy organization, the Israel Project. “We need to say enough, call it quits, UNRWA is not a force a for good. UNRWA is the radicalizing force.”

The emotion-laden issue of the Palestinian refugees has been one of the symbolic wedges preventing a resolution of the conflict. In the 1950s and 1960s, Israeli officials secretly explored resettling Palestinian refugees in North Africa and South America. During the heyday of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the sides mulled a compromise solution to resettle some refugees in their host countries, some in the West Bank, and to allow a symbolic number to live in Israel as part of family unification.

Dahlia Schiendlin, an Israeli-American public opinion expert, says many Israelis aren’t familiar with UNRWA, but among those who are, it is seen as an agency set up exclusively for the Palestinians and that makes compensation demands of Israel that no other country has to deal with.

UNRWA's image among Israelis suffered more damage after several of its schools were used by militants during the 2014 Gaza war to store rockets and other weapons. 

Supporting the Trump administration’s anti-UNRWA policy marks a new approach for Israel’s government on the refugee issue.

“It’s part of the strategy of the Netanyahu administration to downgrade the national claims of the Palestinians, and roll them back to a humanitarian issue,’’ says Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University. “The hope of the government is that UNRWA disappears and in the eyes of the Palestinians, the international community no longer views them as refugees, and this will change their consciousness.”

But some Israeli analysts expressed doubt that this strategy would have the desired effect. While UNRWA has an interest in perpetuating the refugee issue, the agency would continue to receive support from other countries, and the agency would not collapse, says Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli military director of strategic planning.

“It will cause an economic and humanitarian crisis on top of the existing crisis, and in the West Bank, it will make the situation of the PA worse than it is already,’’ Mr. Brom says.

“It’s taking a risk to give a mortal blow to the existence of the Palestinian refugees, but I doubt this will go away. It’s a strong narrative. It’s part of their identity.”

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