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At the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Israeli and Palestinian agendas clashed, while US President Donald Trump impulsively endorsed the two-state solution, before revising his statement the following day. As expected, all the empty rhetoric gave no urgency to the most crucial matter at the moment: the future of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The US government’s decision to slash funds provided to UNRWA, is part of a new American-Israeli strategy aimed at redefining the rules of the game altogether. Judging by Trump’s own confused political discourse and notorious inconsistency, as demonstrated by his conflicting statements in New York, the future of millions of Palestinian refugees is in jeopardy.
UNRWA is experiencing its worst financial crisis yet. The gap in its budget is estimated at around $217 million (Dh796.4 million) and is rapidly increasing as the US has withheld all $350 million it provided annually to the organisation.
The impact of this callous decision by the US, is already reverberating in many refugee camps across the region. Recently, UNRWA has downgraded some of its services: laying off many teachers and reducing staff and working hours at various clinics. Moreover, for the second month in a row, UNRWA has cut 40 per cent of its employees’ salaries.
A total of 2.2 million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan alone, a country that is already overwhelmed by a million Syrian refugees. At the UN summit, King Abdullah II of Jordan implored the international community to step in and fill the widening gap in UNRWA’s budget. “It would be a terrible mistake to abandon youth to the forces of radicalism and despair. Such support is urgently needed to ensure UNRWA fulfils its role in accord with its UN mandate,” he said.
Aware of Jordan’s vulnerability, US emissaries attempted in recent months to barter with the country to heed the US demand of revoking the status of the over two million Palestinian refugees. Instead of funding UNRWA, Washington offered to re-channel the funds directly to the Jordanian government. Thus, the US hopes that the Palestinian refugee status would no longer be applicable. Jordan, however, refused the American offer.
News of this unsuccessful barter resurfaced last August. It was reported that Trump’s special envoy, son-in-law Jared Kushner, tried to sway the Jordanian government during his visit to Amman in June.
Washington and Israel are seeking to simply remove the ‘Right of Return’ for Palestinian refugees, as enshrined in international law, from the political agenda altogether.
“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” Kushner wrote to the US Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, in an email last January. The email, among others, was later leaked to Foreign Policy magazine. “This [agency] perpetuates a status quo,” he also wrote, saying UNRWA is “corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.” This notion that UNRWA sustains the status quo — meaning the political rights of Palestinians refugees — is the main reason behind the American war on the organisation, a fact that is confirmed through statements made by top Israeli officials, too.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, echoed the American sentiment. UNRWA “has proven itself an impediment to resolving the conflict by keeping the Palestinians in perpetual refugee status,” he said.
Certainly, the US cutting of funds to UNRWA coincides with the defunding of all programmes that provide any kind of aid to the Palestinian people. But the targeting of UNRWA is mostly concerned with the status of Palestinian refugees, a status that has irked Tel Aviv for 70 years.
Why does Israel want to place Palestinian refugees in a status-less category?
The refugee status is already a precarious one. To be a Palestinian refugee means living perpetually in limbo — being unable to reclaim what has been lost, and unable to fashion an alternative future and a life of freedom and dignity.
Per Israel’s logic, the mere Palestinian demand for the implementation of the internationally-sanctioned Right of Return is equivalent to a call for “genocide”. According to that same faulty logic, the fact that the Palestinian people live and multiply is a “demographic threat” to Israel.
Much can be said about the circumstances behind the creation of UNRWA by the UN General Assembly in December 1949 — its operations, efficiency and the effectiveness of its work. But for most Palestinians, UNRWA is not a relief organisation per se — being registered as a refugee with UNRWA provides Palestinians with a temporary identity, the same identity that allowed four generations of refugees to navigate decades of exile.
UNRWA’s stamp of “refugee” on every certificate that millions of Palestinians possess — birth, death and everything else in between — has served as a compass, pointing back to the places those refugees come from — not the refugee camps scattered in Palestine and across the region, but the 600 towns and villages that were destroyed during the Zionist assault on Palestine.
These villages may have been erased as a whole new country was established upon their ruins, but the Palestinian refugee subsisted, resisted and plotted the return home. The UNRWA refugee status is the international recognition of this inalienable right.
Hence, the current US-Israeli war does not target UNRWA as a UN body, but as an organisation that allows millions of Palestinians to maintain their identity as refugees with non-negotiable rights until their return to their ancestral homeland. Nearly 70 years after its founding, UNRWA remains essential and irreplaceable.
Now, with the help of the Trump administration, Israeli leaders are orchestrating another sinister campaign to make Palestinian refugees vanish through the destruction of UNRWA and the redefining of the refugee status of millions of Palestinians.
The fate of Palestinian refugees seems to be irrelevant to Trump, Kushner and other US officials. The Americans are now hoping that their strategy will finally bring Palestinians to their knees, forcing them to ultimately submit to the Israeli government’s dictates.
The truth is that all the money in Washington’s coffers will not reverse what is now a deeply embedded belief in the hearts and minds of millions of refugees throughout Palestine, the Middle East and the world.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. Source: Gulf News