Inside the Trump Administration's War on UNRWA and Palestinian Refugees
The Trump administration’s decision to drastically slash American contributions to the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) has sent shockwaves through the organization and left millions of Palestinian refugees wondering if the basic ingredients for their survival will soon disappear. “This is the worst financial crisis in UNRWA’s history,” Chris Gunness told the Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah.
UNRWA was established in 1950 to care for the 750,000 Palestinians who were driven from their homes and land by the Israeli military two years before. Today, the agency provides free education, healthcare and basic foodstuffs to the five million Palestinians spread across the Middle East who inherited refugee status. In the Gaza Strip, UNRWA is the second largest employer and responsible for providing services to over 70 percent of the population. Indeed, the agency is a lifeline for most residents of the besieged coastal enclave, and its collapse would likely trigger a society wide catastrophe.
With its bid to defund UNRWA, the Trump administration has broken with decades of American policy. The administration had initially intended to cut off funding to UNRWA altogether, but an intervention by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson secured an American pledge of $60 million for the year — only half of what the US had been obliged to donate.
A diplomat with knowledge of the Trump administration’s discussions about funding UNRWA told me that Tillerson finessed the funding to demonstrate his authority over colleagues he saw as intruding on his turf. The diplomat described presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as Tillerson’s rivals, and as the key forces behind the assault on UNRWA.
Kushner is a pro-Israel ideologue whose family has donated heavily to illegal Israeli settlements and nurtured a long friendshipwith Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Tasked by the president with achieving the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Kushner has put forward a one-sided plan that promises to relegate a Palestinian state to a few cantons in the West Bank and a little neighborhood on the edge of East Jerusalem, consolidating Israel’s settlement enterprise while leaving millions of Palestinians legally excluded from their own national project.
By starving UNRWA, Kushner hopes to force Palestinians to relinquish their refugee status and eliminate the right of return granted to them by UN Resolution 194. He would thereby remove one of the few cards the Palestinians have left to play at the negotiating table. Since he is unable to shatter the agency in a single blow, his strategy is aimed at disruption.
Haley has joined forces with Kushner to destroy UNRWA, but for other reasons. According to the diplomat, Haley has been fuming since the entire UN General Assembly voted this December to condemn Trump’s pledge to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “We will be taking names,” Haley warned ahead of the vote, vowing to punish the UN for defying Trump.
Besides settling her vendetta against virtually the entire world, Haley is exploiting her platform at the UN to curry favor with the pro-Israel oligarchs who could propel her presidential ambitions. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Netanyahu confidant who donated $5 million to Trump’s inauguration, has been the second largest donor to Haley’s 527 political organization, with a $250,000 donation in 2016. (Last year, Adelson dumped $10 million of his personal fortune into the Israeli-American Council, instantly transforming the group into a pro-Likud competitor to AIPAC, the main arm of the Israel lobby in Washington.)
Haley’s most influential advisor at the UN is not any foreign policy expert, but a veteran Republican consultant from South Carolina named Jon Lerner. A former advisor to the neoconservative darling Sen. Marco Rubio, Lerner has identified his mentor as Arthur Finkelstein, the notoriously ruthless Republican operative who advised Netanyahu’s 1996 run for prime minister and helped broker the merger between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu in 2013.
Haley's pro-Israel messaging appears to reflect Lerner’s plan to position her as a presidential contender.
Trump National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis have been credited in some reports with helping Tillerson secure the compromise on UNRWA funding, but according to the diplomat, they were willing to fight for the funding.
For his part, Trump has proven rudderless, shifting positions from moment to moment depending on which advisor has his ear. The diplomatic source said the president took Tillerson’s side during a lunch in early January, then suddenly pivoted to back Haley after she lobbied him a few days later. Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have done next to nothing to push back against the attack on UNRWA.
The defunding of UNRWA would immediately result in the shuttering of 700 schools that provide 525,000 young people with first-rate, secular-oriented educations that emphasize gender equality and human rights. Basic food supplies would dry up for millions in some of the poorest regions of the Middle East. And as recent history has shown, refugee camps can be easily instrumentalized by radical elements from abroad.
The case of Naher al-Bared, when jihadists infiltrated a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon in 2007 and triggered a brutal invasion by the Lebanese Army that resulted in the camp’s complete destruction, should serve as a frightening lesson in how quickly things can fall apart. But within the Trump administration, personal ambitions and pro-Israel ideology have overwhelmed any concern about further destabilizing a region that is already teetering on the brink.