The Trump administration’s decision last month to cut $360 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is a purely political decision that has no relevance to the definition of Palestinians as “refugees”, nor to their legal rights. Although highly significant since the U.S. makes the largest single donation to UNRWA of any country, the claim that defunding UNRWA will somehow terminate the Palestinian refugee problem and lead to peace is absurd.
UNRWA has nothing to do with defining or perpetuating “refugee status.” The definition and status of Palestinian refugees is determined by the UN General Assembly, which first defined Palestine refugees for purposes of the establishment of international protection and assistance agencies—the UN Conciliation Commission on Palestine (UNCCP) and UNRWA—in December, 1948, on the heels of the massive expulsion of refugees from Palestine. The General Assembly passed Resolution 194 on December 1, 1948, establishing the UNCCP to provide international protection to the over 700,000 Palestinians who were forced to flee, and defining the refugees who were to receive protection by the international community. A year later, the UN established UNRWA to provide international assistance to the refugees, as defined for purposes of UNGA Res. 194, until the right of return and related rights that were incorporated in that Resolution were implemented. The General Assembly has reaffirmed Resolution 194 every year since then by overwhelming majority, established the scope of UNRWA’s mandate towards them since 1949, and repeatedly commended and expanded UNRWA’s services. If UNRWA’s funding were terminated tomorrow, that would have a massive negative effect on the lives of Palestinian refugees, but would do nothing to change their legal status under international law.
It is important to note that the legal definition of Palestinian refugee relates to the status of Palestinians as former nationals of Palestine, a nationality which was recognized in 1924-25 as a matter of the Treaty of Lausanne that terminated World War I and dismantled the Ottoman Empire. The British passed Palestine citizenship legislation that conformed to the Treaty during the British mandate. All Palestinians who had Palestinian nationality/citizenship under treaty and mandate law, and their descendants through today, are defined as Palestinian refugees if they were forced to flee during the conflicts of 1947 onwards, and remain as such until their rights embodied in Res. 194 are realized. In this way, Palestinian refugees’ rights have an even more robust basis than other refugees because their rights are recognized both in general international law as well as in the body of law confirmed in decades of UN resolutions specifically passed for their protection. Today, Palestinians who would be defined by this Palestinian nationality law number approximately 11 million persons. Only 5 million of them are defined as “needy” for purposes of UNRWA humanitarian services, but it is the 11 million that are entitled to the right of return, property restitution and compensation guaranteed by the General Assembly in its resolutions.
A second misconception is that UNRWA is responsible for extending refugee status to multiple generations of Palestinians. The fact that subsequent generations of Palestinians since the first refugees expelled by Zionist militias and the Israeli army in the 1947-49 conflict remain defined as refugees is also entirely a matter of international law. This, too, is a matter for the international community to decide by consensus at the UN, and is outside the power of any single country, let alone UNRWA, to change. (See, for example, UNGA Res. 2252 which recognizes Palestinians displaced by the 1967 conflict as “Palestinian refugees”). Moreover, that Palestinians can legally be multi-generational refugees is perfectly consistent with refugee law in general, which recognizes that subsequent generations of refugees remain refugees until a durable solution is found for their plight.
The United States can’t will away 11 million people by stopping funds, though it can bring misery to many of them. The consequences of the U.S. cuts are devastating and far-reaching unless UNRWA can find other states to fill the gap. UNRWA has already stated that its schools can only operate on current funds through September, which will affect half a million Palestinian children currently studying in UNRWA schools. UNRWA has had to cut staff in services other than the most essential—around 500 staff have already been let go—which has life-threatening consequences, particularly in Gaza, where unemployment is at 44 percent. Funding cuts affect health care delivery, infant mortality, and food subsistence for the most needy.
It would seem obvious that as more and more Palestinians lose these services and cannot meet their basic survival needs, they will turn to violence. Radicalism is generated by desperation as an inevitable consequence of the short-sighted decision by the U.S. to cut UNRWA funding. It’s also important to note that the decision to reduce UNRWA funds has nothing to do with an inability to pay—contrast the $360 million that the U.S. sends to UNRWA each year with the $3.2 billion that the U.S. provides yearly to Israel. It’s evident which recipient is the most deserving, and that the decision is nothing but pure politics played out on the backs of desperately needy Palestinian refugees. Making 5 million people more desperate, denying them funds for medicine and education, only foments anger and greater incentive to armed struggle. This is hardly a recipe for peace and changes nothing to affect the rights and interests of Palestinian refugees.