Is Trump Only Toying with Palestine?

"... We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect." "... With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?" With this tweeted policy pronouncement, President Trump upended 60 years of US Middle East policy of supporting the survival of refugees from Israel's 1948 war for independence and keeping the lid on Palestinian violence. 

Trump actually has his facts scrambled.  We don't pay the Palestinians "hundred of millions of dollars." Instead, we have financially supported the UN organization (UNRWA) which was established to help take care of the refugees.  Since then, UNRWA has been responsible for housing, healthcare, employing and educating them. 

The refugees and their descendants now number some five million Palestinians who are registered as refugees.  They are concentrated in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.  If the financial burden of caring for them was passed from UNRWA to the host countries, Lebanon at a minimum, and potentially Jordan could face significant problems of domestic instability affecting our broader Middle East interests including the fight against terrorism. 

One reason that the problem has persisted for 60 years is that the international community never anticipated the long term effects of the approach that was taken in 1948.  According to the United Nations' definition, one does not have to be resident of a camp to be considered a refugee. Nor does leaving a camp disqualify a resident from receiving UNRWA benefits such as free education and health care until the end of junior high school. Also, refugee status is passed on from generation to generation. This provision of everlasting refugee status makes UNRWA unique in the management of wartime refugees.  

The traditional role of a refugee program is to provide help in returning refugees to their homes or if this is impossible to help resettle them elsewhere. In other words, the Job of a refugee program is to work itself out of business. This is not the job of UNRWA. 

Numerous efforts have been made to resettle these refugees. In a 1992 article, the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) outlined past efforts to resolve the problem as follows: "In 1950, long before 1967 when the occupied territories came under Israeli control, UNRWA suggested moving 150,000 (refugees) to Libya, but Egypt objected. In 1951, UNRWA vetoed a plan to move 50,000 Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip to Northern Sinai when Egypt refused permission to use the Nile waters to irrigate proposed agricultural settlements. In 1952, Syria rejected UNRWA's initiative to resettle 85,000 refugees in camps in that country. In 1959, UNRWA reported that of the $250 million fund for rehabilitation created in 1950 to provide homes and jobs for the refugees outside of the camps, only $7 million had been spent."  So the problem was not one of resources, or, necessarily, of the refugees themselves but of international political will and Arab politics.  

In the early 1970s (when I was a Junior political officer in Tel Aviv), Israel initiated what it called the "build your own home" program. According to the CSM; "A half a dunam of land outside the camps (equal to about an eighth of an acre) was given to Palestinians who then financed the purchase of building materials and, usually with friends, erected a home. Israel provided the infrastructure: sewers, schools, etc. More than 11,000 camp dwellers were resettled into 10 different neighborhoods." In 1992, the cost of a resettlement program of this nature was estimated as about $2 billion dollars "to build enough homes, without any additional investment in infrastructure or job creation, to resettle those refugees residing in the West Bank and Gaza."  That price tag, even with inflation, has to be cheeper than a renewed Intifada, or Gaza war.

In 2014 Israel's "Operation Protective Edge" in Gaza had a much higher cost.   According to Wikipedia "between 2,125 and 2,310 Gazans were killed and between 10,626 and 10,895 were wounded (including 3,374 children, of whom over 1,000 were left permanently disabled)...The UN estimated that more than 7,000 homes for 10,000 families were razed, together with an additional 89,000 homes damaged, of which roughly 10,000 were severely affected by the bombing. Rebuilding costs were calculated to run from 4-6 billions dollars, over 20 years."

As a naive newcomer to the region in 1970 "build you own home" seemed like a realistic and equitable investment. But Israel got no support from the Arab World, from UNRWA, from Washington or even from my own Embassy in Tel Aviv.  So when Arafat and the PLO actively campaigned with intimidation tactics to kill the program, they succeeded.  The "build your own home" program was seen as a dagger in the heart of the Palestinian's "right of return." 

The Palestinians have done their part to ensure that the refugee problem is never solved short of a final peace agreement and that is still the case, despite the efforts of Kushner and Company.  From what they have said, it seems to me that Kushner and his consigulari Amb. Friedman see the solution to the refugee problem as a winner take all commercial transaction.  And they have seized on the wrong end of the stick (the UNRWA budget) as a way of putting pressure on the Palestinians.  This they couple with the promise of Arab development dollars from the Gulf. But if the Israelis could not force Palestinian concessions by force of arms, then it seems unlikely to me that a Qatari or Saudi bribe, no matter how large, will have the desired effect.  And it also remains doubtful that these fair weather Arab friends of Israel will continue their support in the face of potential domestic popular resistance.

Reflecting Trump's thesis, this year, UNRWA, saw the first installment in annual US support cut in January from an anticipated $125 million to $60 million. UNRWA’s largest donor, the US has now slashed its support from more than $300 million last year to $60 million this, according to UN officials.“What Trump and his Middle East team are trying to do is remove the question of the refugees from the table as they believe they did with Jerusalem,” says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and Middle East expert at the London School of Economics. Former Gaza AID director Dave Harden warned: "There is wide speculation that the Trump Administration will defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East in the West Bank and unilaterally re-define who qualifies for refugee status to those Palestinians who were actually displaced between 1948 and 1967."

“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” Trump's son in law Kushner wrote in one email, dated Jan. 11. “This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace." “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.” Note that the breaking things tend to be Israeli and Palestinian heads and not those of the Trump extended family.  Nevertheless, Kushner is not alone in his questioning of UNWRA, nor is his argument anything new or groundbreaking.  But he has failed to suggest how this cutoff is going to lead to anything other than the violence that Israeli experts and its security officials fear.  Expecting the Palstinians to roll over and play dead is not justified by their past or current history. An approach that provides a glide path and operates over years rather than months would seem to me to make more sense. 

Ned Walker