The Plan to Make UNRWA and the Palestine Refugee Disappear


A report that the United Arab Emirates is secretly colluding with Israel on a plan to eradicate the United Nations agency that cares for Palestinian refugees—in a move that could prevent those refugees ever returning home—should be taken seriously.

According to the late December report in the French daily Le Monde, Emirati officials are considering “a plan of action aimed at making UNRWA progressively disappear, without conditioning this on any resolution of the [Palestinian] refugee problem.” The UAE’s foreign minister did not respond to Le Monde’s request for comment on the matter.

UNRWA was created in late 1949 to support Palestinian refugees with jobs, essential food, healthcare and education in special displacement camps in the region. A year earlier, some 750,000 Palestinians had been ethnically cleansed from their homes—and dispersed across the region—to make way for the self-declared Jewish State of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu views the U.N. agency as a threat, proclaiming that a diplomatic resolution of the refugee issue might see them being returned to lands that are now in Israel. Netanyahu has argued that “UNRWA must disappear,” accusing it of perpetuating “the narrative of the so-called ‘right of return’ with the aim of eliminating the State of Israel.”

Having stymied any hope of negotiations, Israel has grown increasingly confident that it can secure widespread backing for dissolving the U.N. refugee agency.

That would effectively strip more than five million Palestinian refugees languishing in dozens of camps across Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza of the right—enshrined in U.N. Resolution 194—to return to their historic lands.

Israel also appears to have spurned compromises from the Palestinian leadership that would limit the refugees’ right to live only in a future Palestinian state established in what are now the occupied territories (rather than in all the territory from which Palestinians were expelled in 1948). In large part, it seems, that is because Israel has no intention of allowing such a state to be founded.

Senior Israeli officials have repeatedly urged that UNRWA be abolished and Palestinian refugees handed over to the global U.N. refugee body, the UNHCR. That would quickly disappear Palestinian refugees into the ever-swelling tide of displaced people spawned by global conflicts, especially in the Middle East.

The likely upshot of eradicating UNRWA is that, rather than being able to return home, refugees would ultimately be forced to naturalize in their host Arab states.

From Israel’s point of view, the refugees comprise the last outstanding Palestinian issue of significance that has yet to be resolved in its favor.

Israel has used its illegal settlements to expand its borders with impunity, eating up the remnants of Palestinian territory and thereby pre-empting any negotiations with Palestinians over statehood. Western states appear to have no appetite to challenge this land theft.

The previous Trump administration’s “peace” plan, unveiled nearly a year ago, even indicated a willingness in Washington, DC to ultimately allow Israel to annex these territories. And, with the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in 2018, Washington has effectively rubber-stamped all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Winning the UAE—and the rest of the Gulf—over to the destruction of UNRWA, stranding most refugees permanently in a handful of the weakest, most volatile Arab states, would be crucial to Israel realizing its Greater Israel plans.

There is plenty of circumstantial evidence to support Le Monde’s report of UAE complicity. The assault on UNRWA’s future began in earnest in 2018 when the U.S. ended all of its $360 million annual funding to the U.N. body, depriving it of a third of its budget.

That was the moment, it seems, when efforts were stepped up to recruit Arab states, especially those in the Gulf, to support the Trump administration’s so-called “deal of the century.” That “peace” plan was premised on Israel annexing swaths of the West Bank, making a viable Palestinian state impossible. In turn, it left refugees in no position to claim any kind of right of return.

Notably, this same period marked a dramatic shift in funding for UNRWA from the UAE and other Gulf states—just as the U.N. agency needed financial assistance more than ever before. The Emirates’ generous $52 million aid for UNRWA in 2019 was slashed to a paltry $1 million in 2020. Saudi Arabia cut its own funding by some $20 million between 2018 and 2020, while Qatar reduced its contribution by more than $30 million.

But there are larger reasons to suspect that the UAE is plotting with Israel to extinguish UNRWA and the wider Palestinian national cause.

It would be naive in the extreme to imagine that the UAE’s decision, along with Bahrain, to sign the so-called Abraham Accords back in September—normalizing relations with Israel—was not viewed in entirely transactional terms. As with most agreements between states, the guiding principle is “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” Both sides want to gain for themselves as much as they give away.

It is clear what the Emirates is gaining. Primarily, they will get access to arms and intelligence from the U.S. and Israel that were long denied them under a doctrine ensuring Israel’s regional “qualitative military edge”.

For aiding a treasured ally of the U.S., Emirati officials can expect an even more sympathetic hearing in Washington. Future U.S. administrations will doubtless be even readier to turn a blind eye to the UAE’s human rights abuses, spinning its autocratic monarchies as beacons of Arab reform and progress.

But if the advantages are clear, what price exactly has been extracted from the UAE in return for normalization? What is Israel set to gain? Most benefits mentioned so far have been relatively modest. Behind closed doors, Israel and the Gulf states have long been cooperating against Iran, so there is no significant strategic dividend for Israel on that score.

The UAE will be helping to launder money, through the Abraham Fund, to pay for Israel’s architecture of oppression against Palestinians under occupation, including an upgrade of checkpoints.

That will further lift the financial burden of occupation from Israel’s shoulders. But still, it is a minor outlay, and has come—at least in the short term—at the cost to Israel of forgoing formal annexation of parts of the West Bank.

The accords should also open up new markets in the Arab world. But again, that seems like a relatively trivial advance when there are much larger markets for Israel in Europe, India and China. More significantly, the agreement with the UAE could pave the way for Saudi Arabia to go public and normalize relations with Israel—the ultimate prize.

But getting the Gulf states onside is only of significant benefit for Israel if their recruitment ultimately leads to the eradication of the Palestinian cause in Arab capitals. Otherwise, the accords amount to little more than a public relations exercise for Israel. This is where attention ought to be primarily focused.

Israel’s immediate aim is to formally erode the Arab states’ commitment to the 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, which promised normalization with Israel only in return for it agreeing to create a viable Palestinian state.

Normalization on the terms agreed by the UAE—that is, without any Israeli commitment to Palestinian statehood—makes those signing up explicit collaborators in the occupation. In fact, it does to the Arab world what Israel earlier did to the Palestinian leadership via the Oslo Accords.

Today, the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Palestinians’ permanent government-in-waiting led by Mahmoud Abbas, serves primarily as a security contractor for Israel. The Palestinian security forces’ “sacred” duty is keeping Israel safe, ensuring compliance from ordinary Palestinians and preventing them from resisting the occupation.

Now, any Arab state signed up to the Abraham Accords will need to act similarly—as a regional contractor for Israel. They will use their leverage to keep the PA compliant and stop it mounting any diplomatic resistance that threatens the normalization pact, leaving Israel with a free hand.

And as refugees are a regional issue, the Gulf states are well positioned to help resolve the matter in Israel’s favor, ending any right of return.

This will not necessarily be plain sailing. At the moment, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria have no incentive to naturalize the large numbers of Palestinian refugees they host. Beirut and Damascus in particular have long feared further fuelling ethnic and sectarian tensions by absorbing hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Reflecting these concerns, the Arab League issued a statement at the end of December warning that the crisis in UNRWA’s finances had taken “a dangerous turn,” and called on donors to make good on their promised contributions.

According to recent figures, some 90 percent of Palestinian refugee households in Syria are living in absolute poverty, and a similar proportion in Lebanon are in desperate need of sustained humanitarian assistance.

UNRWA has praised Jordan for its recent strenuous efforts to help raise money for the agency. But increasingly, Arab states appear divided on UNRWA’s future, with the Gulf states’ savage funding cuts suggesting that they may wish to forge a different path—one desired by Israel.

In January, UNRWA staff in Gaza threatened protests as the agency warned it would not be able to pay already-late November salaries in full, to its 28,000 Palestinian employees. Abdul Aziz Abu Sweireh, a Gaza union leader, accused unnamed countries of seeking to “liquidate” UNRWA.

Unlike the three Arab states hosting many of the refugees, the Gulf enjoys vast oil wealth that, Israel may hope, can be used to strong-arm a new regional and international consensus on the refugees’ future.

That could lead to UNRWA being gradually strangled into submission through a continued denial of funding, as the Gulf donors close ranks and the U.S. and Europe—reeling from the pandemic’s economic blows—grow ever charier of committing to the seemingly endless burden of funding the agency.

If Israel gets its way, the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate in 2023 could become a turning point. Or the crisis could arrive sooner, with donors due to meet in the coming weeks to discuss the next round of contributions.

In a new article in Middle East Quarterly, the house journal of the pro-Israel right in the U.S. allied to Netanyahu, two scholars argue that just such “a moment of truth” has arrived for UNRWA. They urge the agency’s donors to scrutinize, through audits, how their money is being used to “empower reform” of the refugee system, noting that Arab states “seem less inclined than ever to make their national interests captive to the whims of the Palestinian leadership.”

They conclude: “UNRWA must take real measures toward the ultimate resettlement of refugees in the host states…so as to transform them from passive welfare recipients into productive and enterprising citizens of their respective societies.”

Similarly, writing in January in the Israel Hayom daily, widely seen as Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, David Weinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, urged Gulf leaders to use their influence to push the Palestinian leadership toward “moderation and maturity.” In this regard, he highlighted “replacing UNRWA with other humanitarian funding routes.”

Whether this can be made to work will depend in large part on whether Israel can pressure the new Biden administration to continue on the path forged by President Donald Trump. In late November, Ron Prosor, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. and veteran diplomat, called on Joe Biden to continue the hostile policy toward UNRWA initiated by Trump.

As Le Monde’s report suggested, the backing of Gulf states will be critical to whether Israel succeeds in abolishing UNRWA and the rights of Palestinian refugees.

Netanyahu has left no doubt about his approach to international relations. In a 2018 tweet, he observed of his guiding philosophy: “The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.”

The only strength Palestinian refugees have is the U.N. agency that has preserved their rights for more than seven decades. Sweep it away, and the path will be clear to erasing the refugees from history.

Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. He is the author of Blood and Religion and Israel and the Clash of Civilisations (available from AET’s Middle East Books and More).

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