Last week in Davos, President Donald Trump took another rhetorical whack at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which was created to aid Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The United States is the largest donor to the agency. Trump said the United States would continue to withhold funding from the organization if the Palestinians did not pursue peace with Israel. “All that money is on the table,” he said after the United States announced half of its contribution to the agency was already held back.
UNRWA has a deservedly troubled reputation. The agency is repeatedly accused of being complicit in or tolerant of Palestinian terror and aggression from within its boundaries, and repeated demands are being made for more UNRWA accountability.
In addition, the notions behind the agency’s founding are problematic. There are now 5 million Palestinians designated as “refugees,” including millions who are descendants of those who fled what is now Israel 70 years ago. Are these multigenerational Palestinians really refugees? Or are they actually stateless people who have no “final status” because Israel and the Palestinian representatives have failed to determine what is to be done with them?
Within this ambiguous context, what is the role of a refugee agency? If it is simply to provide shelter and food, then perhaps UNRWA is not to blame for the fact that we are now in our third refugee generation. But, if the role is to provide food, shelter, training, assistance and integration, UNRWA has failed.
Even so, UNRWA is not alone in its failure. Rather, the unfortunate reality is that the fate of the Palestinian people has not been sufficiently addressed. The entire world has stood by (some silently, some not) and allowed this situation to fester by not addressing the question of where these “refugees” are supposed to go. Little is being done to resettle them and to provide them a place they can call home.
Faced with rounds and rounds of peace negotiations ending with Palestinian intransigence, Israel has stopped making proposals to make the refugee situation better or even different. But this isn’t a uniquely Israel problem that is meant to be solved by Israel. The fact is, the rest of the world — including the United States — does little more than throw money at the refugees. The other Arab countries — particularly neighbors Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria — would seem like natural sources of a solution, but since 1967 they’ve tended to treat the Palestinians more as pawns than as human beings deserving of jobs, health care and representation.
It is ironic that the United States is now criticizing the very vehicle it helped create to deal with this issue, but that doesn’t make the criticism wrong. And yet, at the same time, the United States continues to advocate for some kind of a peace plan. Perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned is that no peace plan makes sense without addressing what is to become of the Palestinian refugees, whether it’s the 50,000 remaining individuals from 1948’s original 700,000 or the millions of their descendants. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away.