As with the decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, US President Donald Trump surely had his electoral base in mind when deciding to slash funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which looks after Palestinian refugees.
Trump’s decision, however, can not be divorced from a long-standing Israeli animus towards the agency, whose current difficulties have been broadly welcomed by Israeli politicians – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
So, to be clear about why there are Palestinian refugees in the first place. In the period 1947-1949 (i.e. both before and after the State of Israel was established), 85-90 percent of Palestinians were expelled from the territory that became a “Jewish state”, with hundreds of villages demolished.
During the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe), many Palestinians were expelled at gunpoint, some fled for fear of atrocities – but all were prevented from returning by the Israeli state. The Palestinian refugees suffered a threefold disaster: expulsion, denationalisation, and the loss of their properties.
Some Israelis try a different tack, suggesting a distinction between the elderly survivors of the Nakba, and their descendants – the latter, so the argument goes, are not “real” refugees.
This just does not stand up to scrutiny. Return is an individual refugee’s right. As, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights put it: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country”. A right of return is not contingent on the existence of UNRWA (whose mandate, anyway, comes from the UN General Assembly).
Netanyahu apparently believes that UNRWA funding should be redirected to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which he said has “clear criteria for supporting real refugees”. Unfortunately for the Israeli premier, this “criteria” does not include the passage of time.
In a 2016 document, UNHCR highlighted 32 protracted refugee situations worldwide, a third of whom have lasted for more than 30 years. UNHCR noted that “comprehensive solutions require collective commitment to addressing root causes of displacement”.
UNHCR has described the Palestinians as representing “the world’s oldest and largest protracted refugee situation”. The Israeli premier will also be disappointed to learn that for UNHCR, repatriation – i.e. return – is “promoted as the preferred durable solution”.
But the attacks on UNRWA – and by extension, the rights of Palestinian refugees – are an important opportunity to highlight an absurdity and injustice at the heart of this so-called “conflict”.
Israeli officials claim that the children and grandchildren of expelled Palestinians are “fictitious” refugees with no right to return to their homeland, while simultaneously maintaining that Jewish Israelis have returned to their land after thousands of years.
“We are asking the Arabs to accept that a people have come home after 2,000 years”, former Israeli parliamentarian Einat Wilf has admitted. “Can we at least acknowledge how crazy it is?”
UNRWA and the role it plays is not exempt from criticism – as Palestinians have argued, it is part of an internationally-funded aid system which effectively subsidises the cost of Israel’s occupation.
But the issue of UNRWA is distinct from the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. As one resident of Aida camp in the southern West Bank put it recently: “I am a Palestinian refugee from the village of Ajoor. It is 20km away…The refugee issue is a red line, it cannot be solved by ending the services [of UNRWA]. There must be a just solution”.
Indeed, around two in five of all UN-registered Palestinian refugees live under direct Israeli (military) rule in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, tens of miles from their former lands and homes. Thus return is not just a physical question but one of transforming discriminatory laws.
This week, Israeli deputy minister Michael Oren called UNRWA “one of the greatest frauds in history”. Oren was born in the US and grew up in New Jersey. He gained Israeli citizenship under Israel’s explicitly discriminatory immigration legislation – the same system that denies a Palestinian in New Jersey whose family was expelled in 1948 from returning.
UNRWA has survived this long because Palestinian refugees can’t go home – but won’t give up their struggle, and right, to do so.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies