The United States has taken the welcome step of cutting half of our planned $125 million in funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. UNRWA, which provides aid to Palestinians displaced by the Israeli War of Independence and their descendants, has been referred to as “one of the greatest obstacles to peace.” Despite the jeremiads of people who who believe U.S. aid is charity untethered to policy outcomes, this is a peace-encouraging development toward dismantling UNRWA entirely, folding its operations into those of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and ending international maintenance of the Palestinian “refugee crisis” now reaching into its fourth generation.
UNRWA says its mission is “to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees.” UNRWA claims it “protects and assists Palestine refugees, seeking to help them achieve their full potential in human development.” According to its website, “when the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.”
That last sentence should shock you. Its name notwithstanding, UNRWA has not “relieved” the refugees’ situation. It has encouraged and exacerbated it. No other program to assist refugees has overseen and, in fact, helped create a 650% increase in the population it serves. Unfortunately, UNRWA has made Palestinian refugee status hereditary. Rather than moving on with their lives, UNRWA has locked generations of Palestinians in permanent victimhood. UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee as including descendants is partly a strategy to ensure organizational continuity, but it also serves the Palestinian victimization narrative both within their society and beyond. What it does not do is create any incentive for Palestinians to resettle, move on, or build the kind of institutions necessary for statehood.
If the worst thing UNRWA was guilty of were the worsening of the problem it was created to alleviate, it would be unremarkable among U.N. agencies — especially those in the Middle East. Unfortunately, UNRWA has become part of the violence ecosystem in Palestinian society. It is infiltrated, manipulated, and openly exploited by Palestinian terror groups. It has a history of hiring members of terror groups, of its properties being used as munitions dumps and staging areas, and its schools being used to teach the hatred that fuels and perpetuates the conflict. Predictably, the statement by UNRWA’s Commissioner-General responding to the cuts fails to recognize any problems in the agency.
Even if these problems didn’t exist, UNRWA would still make no sense from a policy standpoint as every other refugee crisis in the world is handled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). You read that right: 17.2 million refugees around the world are cared for and (importantly) resettled by a single U.N. agency. One “crisis” alone has its own agency.
The interests of the international community in assisting refugees are both altruistic and tactical. We want to help people, but we want to do it in a way that promotes peace and stability. UNRWA miserably fails at both. In so doing, it strengthens some of the worst forces in Palestinian society, makes peace harder to achieve, and directly participates in the deaths of innocent civilians.
The Trump Administration, in a unique position to cause the kind of disruption that is both necessary and frowned upon in the offices of foreign policy think tanks and newspaper editorial boards, would take an enormous step toward creating the conditions for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by using our financial leverage to dismantle UNRWA. Last year, U.S. taxpayers provided about 30% of the agency’s annual budget (about $360 million of $1.24 billion).
This is an opportunity for the White House to positively engage with the international community while promoting U.S. interests. We should demand an end to the UNRWA mandate and offer to shift our funding to the UNHCR to take up responsibility for necessary humanitarian relief efforts. A cut in funding to UNRWA is a great start, but to prevent the simple fix of someone else stepping in to fill the budget hole, the U.S. needs to couple this expression of our principles with a push for structural change.
Jonathan Greenberg is an ordained Reform rabbi and the senior vice president of the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center.