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Blaming the Victim

In January 2018, the Trump administration held back $65 million of a planned contribution of $125 million to the United Nations agency charged with caring for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).

The United States is the largest contributor to UNRWA.

This past Friday, the Trump administration announced that it was cutting the entire U.S. contribution. The United States is the largest contributor to UNRWA. In 2017, the United States contributed roughly $364 million, a third of the total UNRWA budget. Losing all U.S. funding is devastating cut to this agency, which cares for roughly 5 million Palestinian refugees living in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Of the 5 million Palestinian refugees recognized by the United Nations, approximately 1.5 million live in 58 refugee camps in the areas/countries listed above.

Over 700,000 Palestinians fled (or were killed) or were driven from their homes in historic Palestine.

After Israel announced its independence in 1948, war broke out between Israel and the neighboring countries. In the course of the war, over 700,000 Palestinians fled (or were killed) or were driven from their homes in historic Palestine. In 1967, war broke out again between Israel and the neighboring countries of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Israel won this war decisively and quickly, and yet another 300,000 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank were displaced or fled. Because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been resolved, over 5 million Palestinians are registered refugees with UNRWA. Most of these 5 million Palestinians are not individuals who were displaced in 1948 or 1967, but rather descendants of those who were. UNRWA offers a variety of services to Palestinian refugees, including education, health services, social safety net, microfinance, housing and infrastructure, and emergency response. Most of this work is done in the refugee camps, though UNRWA estimates that over 3 million Palestinian refugees (twice the total population of the refugee camps) utilize the health services that UNRWA offers.

Why is the Trump administration cutting off funding? Here is the thrust of the administration’s explanation:

Beyond the budget gap itself and failure to mobilize adequate and appropriate burden sharing, the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years – tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries – is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years. The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation. We are very mindful of and deeply concerned regarding the impact upon innocent Palestinians, especially school children, of the failure of UNRWA and key members of the regional and international donor community to reform and reset the UNRWA way of doing business. These children are part of the future of the Middle East. Palestinians, wherever they live, deserve better than an endlessly crisis-driven service provision model. They deserve to be able to plan for the future.

The last four sentences are both illuminating and bewildering. The United States cannot completely cut off funding that is critical to lives of at least 1.5 million Palestinians, those in the refugee camps, and also expect its concern for their well-being to be taken seriously. The Trump administration has deemed these people disposable for the sake of a larger purpose. And what is that larger purpose, and how does this move factor into it?

Israel will never allow 5 million Palestinians to return to places in the modern state of Israel.

The Trump administration, like all administrations since 1968, seeks a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One major issue in the conflict is the right of return for refugees. The right of return for refugees enjoys widespread recognition in the international community. U.N. resolution 194 specifically affirms the right of return for Palestinians (including restitution and compensation). Israel’s admission as a member to the U.N. was made conditional on its implementation of resolution 194. There is no serious disagreement about this right, but no one knows exactly how to implement this right for Palestinians. Israel will never allow 5 million Palestinians to return to places in the modern state of Israel, and likely would not allow them to return to Gaza or the West Bank.

The Trump administration is trying to solve the refugee issue without requiring any concessions from the entity that caused it. As Jonathan Cook correctly states: “If Israel won’t compromise, Mr. Trump will settle the final-status issues – borders, Jerusalem and the refugees – in the stronger party’s favor. The only hurdle is finding a way to bully the Palestinians into acceptance.” First, Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, effectively putting to rest this complicated issue. No part of Jerusalem will be part of a future Palestinian state. Now the issue of Palestinian refugees is being settled.

If there are no refugees, there is no need for a right of return.

The first step is to dismantle UNRWA. Jared Kushner, son-in-law and advisor to the president, wrote in an email, “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA.” Kushner has reportedly pushed Jordan to strip more than 2 million Palestinians refugees in Jordan or their status. He also has suggested that the refugees in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon should be permanently resettled in those countries. It has also been reported that the Trump administration will propose that the recognized Palestinian refugee population be capped at 500,000, a tenth of the current number.

As Cook concludes, “If there is no UNRWA, there is no Palestinian refugee problem. And if there are no refugees, there is no need for a right of return – and even less pressure for a Palestinian state.” I fully expect the Trump administration to reject UNRWA’s acknowledgment of 5 million Palestinian refugees in the coming year or two.

We are watching the process through which Palestinians cease to exist.

We are watching the process through which Palestinians cease to exist. We can still stop it, but it is getting harder every day. Over the last six months, Israeli troops have shot and killed at least 170 Palestinian civilians protesting on the Gaza border, and they have shot and injured over 1000 Palestinians. The most definitive measure that the Trump administration has taken concerning Israel and Palestine in the last six months is to cut funding to a U.N. agency that provides education, health care, housing, food, and more to Palestinian refugees. Israeli soldiers kill and maim unarmed Palestinian civilians, including paramedics and reporters; the Trump administration cuts funding to Palestinian refugees. 

There is no universe in which these corresponding actions could ever make sense, or could ever be justified. Unless, of course, you believe in blaming the victim.

[Image: Joshua Vis]

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