US President Joe Biden is exerting minimal effort in distinguishing his diplomacy from that of the Trump administration. The concept of reversing the previous administration’s policies on Palestine have, so far, been restricted to statements without actions, or half-way attempts which can hardly be defined as outstanding. Let us just take a moment to remember that Biden was the only option to former US President Donald Trump, and the illusion of progress in terms of Palestinian rights is crumbling fast.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the resumption of financial aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in early April, pledging US$150 million to the agency. It is a departure from the previous administration’s decision to end all aid in 2018, ostensibly because UNRWA’s “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years.” Prior to Trump’s withdrawing of UNRWA-allocated funds, however, the US contributed US$350 million per year.
The US State Department’s press release states, “The United States is committed to advancing prosperity, security, and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians in tangible ways in the immediate term, which is important in its own right, but also as a means to advance towards a negotiated two-state solution.” US financial aid for UNRWA, therefore, is a contribution to the two-state diplomacy, and a less than half-hearted one at that, given that the financial donation will amount to less than half of the pre-Trump US’ budget for the agency.
Unsurprisingly, Israel objected to the US decision. “Israel’s position is that the organization in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry declared.
Without the slightest hint of critical reflection, the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh tweeted his appreciation of the US’ restoration of financial aid to UNRWA and called upon the Biden administration “to create a new political path that meets the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people based on international law and UN resolutions.”
The simplistic debate of being for or against the resumption of aid to UNRWA conceals many intricacies which are being ignored. News is shifting to the immediate while the impact of earlier decision-making is lost—from Trump’s war waged against Palestinian refugees, to the UN, which aided in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the first place.
Trump’s tenure was marked by a persistent agenda to alter the identity of Palestinian refugees, with the ultimate aim of eliminating UNRWA.
Trump’s tenure was marked by a persistent agenda to alter the identity of Palestinian refugees, with the ultimate aim of eliminating both UNRWA and the Palestinian right of return, enshrined in UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 194.
When UNRWA made headline news over alleged corruption and sexual misconduct at the highest levels of its administration, Trump capitalized on the scandal to justify its withdrawal of aid to the agency. A brief veneer which, for a while, deflected attention away from the US “Deal of the Century” and its plan to integrate refugees in Arab states, thus eliminating the need for UNRWA and dispelling the existence of Palestinian refugees. A travesty of justice which would have also exonerated the UN from its role in the 1947 Partition Plan and the first steps of legitimizing the Zionist colonial project in Palestine.
Perhaps temporarily emboldened by Trump’s unilateral policies and the drive towards altering the Palestinian refugee question, the UN itself was reportedly consulting with pro-Israeli entities to find an alternative to UNRWA in 2019.
The Israeli government’s position, as expressed clearly in 2001, is that “Israel will never allow the right of Palestinian refugees to return to inside the State of Israel.”
With such a decisive policy, and one which the international community has failed to challenge, UNRWA has become a necessary, politicized, and loathed humanitarian tool. In the absence of the Palestinian right of return, however, UNRWA is here to stay. Its permanence is the result of international political collusion against the Palestinians, and not the fault of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants for wanting to reclaim their land.
There is no denying the importance of UNRWA’s mandate in terms of providing basic needs to the Palestinian refugees. With the US once again allocating a fraction of its budget to UNRWA, the Biden administration is taking a calculated risk in walking the middle line between Trump’s belligerent policies and the international community’s consensus.
The Biden administration is taking a calculated risk in walking the middle line between Trump’s belligerent policies and the international community’s consensus.
The more funding is tied to the organization, as opposed to the Palestinian people’s needs and rights, a shift that is difficult to reverse will be established. One that gives UNRWA, shackled as it is by donors and politics, more prominence than the Palestinian refugees.
If this happens, criticism of the organization will adopt a cautious stance, and one that is harmful to Palestinians. The agency’s mandate, as neutral as it may appear on paper, has political implications, considering UNRWA was created in the absence of a solution. It is therefore pertinent to ask why the international community politicized humanitarian aid in a manner that prevents a political solution.
Humanitarian aid has been tied to the two-state diplomacy. UNRWA is not an exception to this rule and neither is the US resumption of aid to the agency. While the two-state framework has established nothing in terms of the Palestinian right of return, it has contributed to the notion of Palestinian refugees as an ongoing and perennial humanitarian project.
While Trump intended for UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees to disappear, the biggest impact of his policies has been the emergence of a pro- or anti- UNRWA stance, leaving much power in the hands of an organization that hides behind neutrality even as it presents itself as an accomplice to the two-state paradigm and the permanence of the Palestinian refugee question.
Seeking donations for UNRWA in February this year, Deputy Commissioner-General Leni Stenseth described the agency as “irreplaceable for the rights and wellbeing of Palestine refugees.” The longer it takes to embark upon a rights-based solution, which UNRWA does not approach, the more donations become about sustaining the agency’s existence to serve the two-state compromise.
The longer it takes to embark upon a rights-based solution, the more donations become about sustaining UNRWA’s existence.
So while the US donation is necessary, it is also about serving the two-state expectations, which Biden needs to follow if the US is to align itself once more with international consensus over Palestine. However, caution needs to be exercised before lauding the decision. Palestine is not a priority for the Biden administration, and that is a give-away in terms of the administration’s statements regarding its refusal to reverse all of Trump’s policies.
Furthermore, the Palestinian refugees are not a priority for the international community, which makes the US approach to the issue – providing aid in pretense of concern – less conspicuous. After all, the international community adopts the same tactic and it meets with scant criticism, especially when UNRWA maintains a purportedly neutral stance that silences Palestinian rights.
Former US envoy Jason Greenblatt has praised Biden’s approach. “I appreciate the slow nature of the new administration’s decision-making process, and I hope that they don’t sway from the approach that we took,” Greenblatt recently opined.
The day the Biden administration openly vindicates Trump will be a sad day indeed.