But, despite Netanyahu’s cautious support of the US move and warnings emanating from his own cabinet members and security officials, doing away with UNRWA at this stage would be catastrophic for all. The UN agency was formed by the General Assembly — with Israel’s backing — in 1949, following the first Arab-Israeli war. Its mandate, which is different from that of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is renewed by the same body every three years and it is responsible for Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. While, like the UNHCR, it allows refugee status to be inherited by descendants, it does not seek to end that status through local integration in host countries or resettlement in a third country.
Netanyahu and his predecessors claim that allowing the right of return will lead to the elimination of the state of Israel. He wants the UNHCR to take over UNRWA’s responsibilities, thus paving the way for settling Palestinian refugees in host countries — an explosive issue, especially for Jordan and Lebanon. Since the Oslo process was launched in the 1990s, Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors had explored ways of symbolically implementing the right of return, opting for financial compensation instead of the repatriation of Palestinian refugees into the nascent Palestinian state. It is a complex issue that will not be resolved through unilateral steps by either Israel or the United States.
In fact, the refugee challenge underlines the need for a credible and just political process that requires international support and regional cooperation. Attempting to take the problem off the negotiation table, as Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners would like, is not only simplistic and naive, but dangerous in its regional repercussions.
One cannot help but assert that the US is being both reckless and sloppy in implementing a Netanyahu agenda, whose ultimate goal is to shut down the Palestinian cause altogether. If we are to believe what Michael Wolff has unveiled in his recent book “Fire and Fury,” the so-called “ultimate deal” in the Middle East gives the Palestinians absolutely nothing in terms of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is exactly the position of Netanyahu, whose Likud Party has just voted to impose Israeli law on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, virtually annexing most of the Occupied Territories.
Defunding the Palestine refugee agency now will threaten Israeli security, especially in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, create chaos in the Occupied Territories, bring down the Palestinian Authority and enrage host countries.
Osama Al Sharif
Defunding UNRWA now will threaten Israeli security, especially in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, create chaos in the Occupied Territories, bring down the Palestinian Authority and enrage host countries. And, just as with the Jerusalem issue, it will bring to the front the plight of the Palestinian people. It will not succeed in blackmailing the Palestinian leadership, but will allow extremists to press their case — that a negotiated settlement is impossible and that armed resistance is the only way forward. It will prove what moderate leaders have always said: That, unless the Palestinian issue is resolved justly, the region will continue to be unsettled.
This is why the international community, including Arab and Muslim countries, must step in to neutralize the UNRWA card. The US’s annual share of the agency’s budget is almost half a billion dollars — a sum that pales in comparison when one thinks of the geopolitical damage that would result from UNRWA’s collapse. Keeping the agency alive is a must, while resolving the Palestinian issue has never been so urgent and cost-effective for the entire world.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.