UNRWA is not the issue


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 withhold aid if the Palestinians did not pursue peace. “All that money is on the table,” he warned after the United States announced it was withholding more than half of its contribution to UNRWA.

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.

Israel isn’t really proposing anything to make the situation better, or even different. And the rest of the world — including the United States — does little more than throw money at the “refugee problem.” Which leaves the other Arab countries — particularly neighbors Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. Sure, it is easy to say they should settle the refugees, since they are “Arab cousins.” But these countries know how economically difficult and politically destabilizing that population could be. So, are they really to blame for not rolling out the red carpet?

It is ironic that the United States is now criticizing the very vehicle it helped create to deal with this issue under terms that we’ve all known and understood for decades. At the same time, the U.S. continues to advocate for some kind of peace plan. No peace plan makes sense without addressing the Palestinian “refugee” crisis. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

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