photo by Victor Grigas
In case you missed it, last week the United States carried out a flagrant assault against the Palestinian people: We cut off their allowance.
Don’t take my word for it. The words “flagrant assault” come from a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as reported by the BBC. The comment was a response to the United States’ decision not to commit further funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, an organization the State Department has called “irredeemably flawed.”
The decision to cut funding, announced Sept. 1, followed a January ultimatum. The White House withheld more than half of the year’s planned UNRWA funding, demanding major reforms from the agency before it released the rest. Since the U.S. was UNRWA’s largest single donor, funding nearly 30 percent of its operation in the region, the decision to cut funding altogether was a major blow to the organization.
According to some press reports, certain elements of the U.S. government opposed the funding cut on grounds that it will hinder peace in the Middle East. The obvious question is: How has peace in the region worked out in the nearly 70 years that we have funded UNRWA so far?
The crux of U.S. criticism of the U.N. agency is a dispute over the definition of “refugees.” According to U.N. measures, about 5 million Palestinians qualify, including the descendants of people who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Only a tiny fraction of this population has ever lived in present-day Israel. Most of these people were born refugees, have lived their lives as refugees, have borne their own children (and grandchildren) as refugees, and in all probability will die refugees. Their care and feeding is no longer a relief effort; it is an industry. And the perpetuation of their refugee status is a matter of necessity for those who claim to act on their behalf.
The only plausible way these so-called refugees will ever “return” to the homes they have never inhabited is through the end of Israel in its current incarnation as a Jewish state. And this, in turn, would surely mean a horribly bloody final battle in much of the region, and quite possibly beyond. No rational policymaker could want this.
Which is why the U.S. action, while debatable, is entirely rational. Changing the status quo in the region has to start with ... changing the status quo. UNRWA is, for all practical purposes, the custodian of that status quo. I have no quarrel with the U.S. decision to walk away.
It isn’t surprising that other western nations, including the United Kingdom and Germany, have said they will step up their contributions in light of the U.S. withdrawal, although they are stopping far short of taking on the full burden that America has carried for many years. A more substantial contribution might be an offer to resettle a sizable number of the purported refugees within their own borders, and to allow them and their descendants to build normal lives as full participants in civil society. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that announcement.
Palestinian leaders are infuriated that U.S. policy has moved sharply in Israel’s favor. They are correct; it has. They see this as deeply unfair and even immoral. I am not inclined to argue otherwise. But a lot of unfair things happened in the tumultuous years following World War II and the Holocaust. In Europe, Poles moved west as Russians moved into what had been their country’s east, and Germans moved west as Poles and Russians displaced them. Today’s Polish city of Wroclaw used to be Germany’s Breslau. Russia’s Kaliningrad was once Konigsberg. Nobody, at least in the West, has any thoughts of mucking with today’s borders in the region, and no one labels the displaced families refugees today.
Elsewhere, history’s greatest mass migration took place amid the partition of British India into what is today Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. The partition happened just a year before the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, sending an estimated 15 million people scrambling to cross the new borders between India and Pakistan. (Bangladesh became independent later, in 1971.) Although the subcontinent is hardly a peaceful place today, the only refugees in the region came from opposite directions: Afghans in Pakistan and Rohingya displaced from Myanmar in Bangladesh.
Permanent displacement and a struggle to regain that which is out of reach has not served Palestinians well, and it has not helped lay the groundwork in Israel for peaceful resolution. But there have been clear beneficiaries: the U.N.’s related bureaucracy and the self-appointed leaders of an array of Palestinian factions, all claiming to act for their people’s betterment without anything actually getting better.
It is a moot point to debate whether the Zionist ideal of a Jewish state to be built on formerly Arab land was a good idea worthy of the world’s support. It happened, and in the immediate postwar years, it made as much sense as many of the other things that were happening around the same time. Any realistic plan for peace has to begin with the world as it exists today. And as it exists today, UNRWA serves refugees in name only while maintaining a captive market for its services.