On Friday, his administration said it would cease funding the U.N. agency, which was launched in 1949 to provide for more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes in what is now Israel. Relying on volunteer donors — of which Washington has been the largest — UNRWA has had its mandate renewed repeatedly by the U.N. General Assembly as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dragged on. Over the decades, the population of Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and now-semi-permanent camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon has ballooned to around 5 million, encompassing the descendants of the original exiles.
The White House, along with Israel's right wing, argues that the rolls of recognized refugees should be limited to those alive in 1949 — a move at odds with other U.N. operations that also confer refugee status upon the descendants of the displaced. At a conference in Washington last week, Nikki Haley, Trump's envoy to the United Nations, bemoaned the “endless number of refugees that continue to get assistance” and how “the Palestinians continue to bash America."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other leading Israeli politicians cheered Trump's decision. Meanwhile, UNRWA officials are scrambling to raise funds from the European Union and Arab countries, adamant that their mission is necessary until a meaningful peace is achieved.
“There is only one thing that perpetuates the situation of refugees, including Palestinian refugees, and that is the extraordinary failure of the international community to bring about a just and fair and inclusive solution to the conflict,” Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA's commissioner general, said to The Washington Post's Ruth Eglash.
"His negotiations have put me in a position where I have nothing to lose. Why should I talk to them?” Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said to The Post. “They have disqualified themselves from any role in the peace process and destroyed all prospects of peace.”
Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, told the Intercept: “Past U.S. administrations were also slanted toward the Israelis, but what’s different today is that the usual mitigating factors in decision-making, such as American national security interests and the desire to at least appear evenhanded, no longer seem to be present. Instead we have domestic politics and ideology in their purest form dictating U.S. policy on this issue.”
This may have disastrous short-term consequences for Palestinians dependent on UNRWA assistance. Trump's move surprised Israel’s security establishment, which fears a humanitarian crisis. Those concerns are shared by many in Washington.
“Publicly, Arab dictators say full peace with Israel will only be possible when the Palestinian issue is solved, but in private, they are continuously drawing closer to Israel,” wrote Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer. “Indeed, their joint interests in confronting Iran and the Islamic State easily trump any true Arab solidarity with the Palestinians.”
"The alliance between Israel’s allies and ultra-nationalists in Europe and the US has become a central theme of the BDS campaign’s messages. In this respect, the Trump era has been good for the movement,” Nathan Thrall, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian politics, wrote in the Guardian. “So has the Netanyahu government, whose attacks on BDS have been among the greatest drivers of publicity and recruitment for the campaign."
If this worries the Israeli prime minister, he isn't showing it. In a speech last week, Netanyahu eschewed his country’s ostensibly liberal values and offered a chilling argument that might makes right. In the Middle East, he said, “there is no place for the weak.” And the Palestinians, it can be inferred, ought to know their place.