The revelations contained in Jared Kushner’s correspondence which seek to terminate the Palestinians’ refugee status has been the source of much controversy this past month, with little recognition of how Israel has been lobbying for such a violation to occur. In an internal email to other senior US advisors, Kushner wrote:
“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA. This agency perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”
Kushner’s email is dated in January 2018, which is when Trump announced the US would be slashing funding for the agency. The deficit in UNRWA’s budget is just a first step to bring the agency to a halt. It is interesting to note that while UNRWA has spoken on several occasions about the ramifications of decreased funding with regard to their projects, it still maintains a purportedly non-political approach, despite the fact that Palestinian refugees have been created as a result of colonisation and that the current restrictions also stem from a political decision directly related to aiding Israel to complete its displacement of the indigenous population and secure colonial expansion.
Disrupting UNRWA’s work, therefore, is just a means through which Israel and the US can ultimately disappear Palestinian refugees from the international arena. If there is no longer reference to Palestinian refugees, UN Resolution 194 which proclaims the Palestinian Right of Return, will also lose the limited impact it has upon diplomatic negotiations.
In the process, there are two main issues to consider. The first is that the US has no mandate to eliminate UNRWA. The second point is that UNRWA depends entirely upon the actions of individual countries to survive. The obfuscation between these two points is that ultimately, individual countries are within their limits to pledge or withhold aid. As a result, Palestinians are at the mercy of individual countries and the international community, while UNRWA’s mandate, as determined by the international community, to be a non-political actor, is also contributing towards the distortion of Palestinian rights.
While the US is intent on disrupting UNRWA with the aim of eliminating Palestinians’ claims to return to their land, it must be noted that the international community itself has provided the foundations for such measures to take place. The UN recognised Israel’s existence while bequeathing Palestinians only with a non-binding resolution inscribing their right of return. UNRWA’s structure, which focuses upon humanitarian efforts to alleviate a fraction of Palestinian suffering, prevents the organisation from adopting a political role as regards to Palestinian rights. It could also be stated that UNRWA plays a role in depoliticising the Palestinian right of return, while at the same time the organisation’s existence is perceived as a link between Palestinians and their right of return to their land.
Yet, cloistering a political right within the humanitarian realm has proved to be detrimental for Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed that UNRWA perpetuates the existence of Palestinian refugees. Meanwhile, UNRWA’s reticence to speak about Israel’s colonial violence and expansion as the reason why Palestinian refugees exist is contributing to the rhetoric of the organisation working within isolation. In turn, Israel and the US have focused upon depriving the agency of funding to bring the meager humanitarian possibilities for Palestinians to an end. UNRWA’s refusal, or inability, to get politically involved in the Palestinian right of return has contributed to the already precarious foundations upon which the resolution is based.
Disrupting UNRWA, as Kushner writes, is just a step in a process that started with the non-binding resolution itself. The luxury of debating whether the Palestinian right of return has a political or humanitarian precedent is no longer available. It is, however, pertinent to ask why the Palestinian right of return remains tethered to the definition of Palestinian refugees as determined by UNRWA. The fallacy is that the international community is swift to resort to cautious criticism when discussing the US move to eliminate Palestinian refugees diplomatically, yet refuses to change its course of action to allow Palestinians to determine their definition of refugee status and articulate their own concept of the Palestinian right of return. As things stand, Palestinians are trapped between losing their imposed refugee status, and having that status articulated by Israel’s colonial allies, thus remaining tethered to impositions and, in either case, permanently deprived of their rights.