U.S. President, Donald Trump, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, have recently made moves to strip millions of Palestinians of their refugee status by undermining the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), according to internal emails obtained by U.S. magazine Foreign Policy.
UNRWA is a relief and human development agency that has played a pivotal role in supporting the Palestinian cause for decades. The United Nations (U.N.) agency supports millions of registered Palestinian refugees, defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”
The U.N. agency provides Palestinian refugees living in the areas in which it operates with “education, health care, relief and social services, infrastructure and camp improvement, microfinance and emergency response,” according to their website.
When UNRWA began its operations in 1950, it responded to the needs of approximately 750,000 Palestinian refugees. Today, the U.N. agency caters to 5 million Palestinian refugees, a number that includes the direct descendants of the original 750,000 and their legally adopted children.
UNRWA’s mandate is renewed every three years. It was most recently renewed in 2017, extending the mandate to 2020. However, the U.S. government’s latest attempts to disrupt the U.N. agency could endanger its operations in the long-term.
In a controversial move earlier this year, the White House announced that it would be withholding $65 million of the $125 million originally allocated to UNRWA, after Trump accused the Palestinians of being “ungrateful” for the aid they were receiving.
Just five days before the Trump administration made this announcement, Kushner wrote, in a leaked email obtained by Foreign Policy, that it was “important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA.”
“This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace,” he reportedly said in an email sent to several senior U.S. officials on January 11.
In Foreign Policy’s report, Palestinian officials also claimed that Kushner, whom Trump has tasked with reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, allegedly pressured Jordan to strip more than 2 million Palestinians of their refugee status.
Kushner raised the issue with Jordanian officials during a visit to the Middle East in June, according Al Bawaba. While U.S. officials discussed their “peace plan” with officials from the occupied territories, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar, they did not meet with Palestinian authorities during their regional tour.
Although the majority of Palestinian refugees supported by UNRWA live in Jordan, sizable populations also live in Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. If the White House is able to successfully strip Palestinian refugees living in Jordan of their status, it might herald similar action being taken in other areas that UNRWA operates in, rendering the U.N. agency obsolete.
For many supporters of Israel in the U.S. this would be ideal, as they believe that UNRWA has artificially kept the refugee issue alive and given exiled Palestinians hope that they might one day return home — a possibility that Israel has categorically rejected.
Trump and Kushner are not alone in attempts to defund UNRWA. Presently, there are at least two bills in the U.S. Congress that are attempting to reduce both the amount of funding available to UNRWA and the number of Palestinian refugees eligible for U.S. aid. These measures are all reportedly part of Kushner’s so-called “deal of the century,” which aims to resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said, after Kushner’s visit to Jordan, that the U.S. official’s delegation had expressed its readiness to stop funding UNRWA altogether, preferring instead to redirect the money- $300 million annually — to Jordan and other countries willing to host Palestinian refugees. “All this is actually aimed at liquidating the issue of the Palestinian refugees,” noted Erekat.
In the past, the U.S. government has been UNRWA’s top donor, donating $364 million to the agency last year, according to U.N. officials. As it becomes increasingly clear that the Trump administration is no longer interested in supporting UNRWA, the U.N. is looking elsewhere for funding.
In June, the U.N. asked member states to fill in the funding gap caused by cuts made by Trump’s administration. Senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Sha’ath, confirmed that efforts were being made to raise alternative funding to cover the deficit.
“We have already started a campaign to finance UNRWA from other sources,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview from Ramallah.
“We have now [sic] more support coming from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf countries — also from Japan, Belgium, Luxembourg and other countries.”
Despite the U.S. government’s attempts to disrupt UNRWA’s activities, the U.N. agency has shown no sign of backing down. “We cannot comment on the so-called ‘deal of the century’ as we do not know definitively any details about it,” UNRWA told Al Jazeera in a statement.
“The [U.N.] General Assembly has mandated us to continue delivering services until there is a just and durable solution to the conflict and we are determined to do that to the best of our ability,” the U.N. agency added.
Although the Trump administration claims that it is trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its actions are sending a very different message to the international community — especially the Palestinian people. Trump’s “deal of the century” is seen as yet another underhanded attempt to deprive Palestinians of their legitimate rights — most notably the right of return.
“There is no . . . deal of the century — a deal is something that two parties agree to, offering something and getting something,” Sha’ath said, commenting on Kushner’s recent efforts in the region.
“There is simply a total support of the right-wing government of Israel, the Zionist plan for settlements and the total destruction of the peace process that was signed in the U.S. in 1993,” he added. “Really, it will lead to nothing but greater disruption of this part of the world rather than seeking any solution.”