No, hurting Palestinian refugees doesn’t help peace

Omar Baddar on February 3, 2018
It’s not news to readers of this site that the spectrum of views on Middle East policy in US media is generally lacking.

But when that bias takes the form of relying regularly on an organization with a troubling agenda for U.S. engagement in the region and that publication is a credible source for congressional news and analysis, it warrants additional examination. Politico’s “exposé” accusing Obama of letting Hezbollah “off the hook” was heavily reliant on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)’s David Asher, whose name appeared three dozen times in the article.

Then came the bipartisan “Where We Can Agree on Iran” piece, co-authored by FDD’s Mark Dubowitz, and appropriately mocked by Yousef Munayyer of USPCR for “presenting the views of two white dudes working for pro-Israel think tanks as some broad spectrum.” Then came the hit piece by Jonathan Schanzer and Richard Goldberg of (wait for it) FDD, targeting UNRWA, the UN agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees, which they paint as both a waste of US taxpayers’ money and a promoter of hopelessness and violence. Because a misleading attack on a refugee assistance program is a step too far, it’s time to set the record straight, starting with basic context:
Israel’s creation came at the expense of 700,000+ Palestinians who were driven from their homes during the 1948 war. Israel’s blocking of these refugees’ right to return home, coupled with its destruction of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages to make such return impossible, created the protracted Palestinian refugee crisis. After Palestinians made a historic compromise in recognizing Israel on nearly 80 percent of historic Palestine, the framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shifted to the two-state solution, whereby Israel would withdraw from the remaining 22 percent of the land, as it is required to do under international law. A resolution to the Palestinian refugee crisis under a two-state solution is understood to entail compensation for the displaced families, and a combination of some refugees returning home to modern-day Israel, many being resettled in the emerging Palestinian state, and integration in host countries for those who choose it.
Instead of capitalizing on the Palestinian compromise, abiding by international law, and withdrawing from one-fifth of historic Palestine to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, Israel did the exact opposite: it accelerated its expansion of illegal settlements in areas allocated for the Palestinian state, to the condemnation of the entire international community. Eventually, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even dropped the pretense of a just two-state solution, openly rejecting the return to the internationally-mandated pre-1967 borders, and declaring that there will never be a Palestinian state on his watch. President Obama was critical of Netanyahu’s behavior, and had enough of a conscience to not veto a 2016 UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion, but he ultimately wasn’t willing to pay the domestic political cost of applying meaningful pressure on Israel to change its peace-obstructing behavior.
When Donald Trump became president, some hoped he could strike “the ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. But it was clear to any informed observer that a workable deal would require meaningful American pressure on Israel to end the occupation, and given the extremist pro-Israel crew Trump surrounded himself with (including Ambassador David Friedman, who once called Obama an anti-Semite over tepid criticism of Israel), there was every reason to be skeptical. Then Trump proved our skepticism by backing off long-standing US opposition to settlements, and even taking “Jerusalem off the table” and granting it to Israel, thereby instantly making any deal unacceptable to Palestinians.
And when Palestinians mustered the dignity to refuse negotiations under such demeaning and deplorable terms, Trump cut off more than half of the funding for UNRWA, and has threatened to cut off all aid to the Palestinians.
The idea of punishing Palestinian refugees to coerce Palestinians to submit to Trump and Netanyahu’s appalling vision of “peace” seems transparently reprehensible. However, Schanzer and Goldberg assure us that it only appears that way, but that “it’s not that simple,” because the US has given UNRWA billions over the past decades, and “it’s only fair to ask: What are we getting for our money?” The authors take issue with UNRWA counting refugees’ descendants in the camps they help, arguing that UNRWA creates a “culture of hopelessness and permanent dependency [that] breeds terrorism and violence.”
You’d think the “hopelessness” experienced by Palestinian refugees should be blamed on those who drove them from their homes and refuse any sensible political settlement that solves their problem. But no, apparently it’s the fault of the UN agency helping them survive this grave injustice.
In what reads like a bad joke, Schanzer and Goldberg propose placing Trump’s anti-Palestinian chief UN diplomat Nikki Haley, who openly gloated about booting a Palestinian out of a UN job for no reason other than being Palestinian, in charge of UNRWA to shape its mission. Schanzer and Goldberg also attempt to tie UNRWA to terrorism, citing dubious claims about UNRWA’s role during Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2014. Without getting into the details of what makes many of the allegations about the 2014 war misleading (you can watch a detailed breakdown here), it’s actually worth noting that Israel gets a lot more money from the US than UNRWA does, and Israel’s army stands accused of committing serious war crimes against thousands of civilians, dwarfing any of the allegations brought up against UNRWA. Shouldn’t accountability for far larger sums of money and far bigger atrocities come before nickel-and-diming a refugee assistance program?
Schanzer and Goldberg argue that “there must be a plan to move UNRWA’s 5 million dependents from international welfare to self-sufficiency,” and I couldn’t agree more. The way to move refugees to self-sufficiency is to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and create the conditions by which they can return to normal life. What this requires is pressure on the Israeli government to end its obstructionist policies, not Trump’s enablement of their hubris at the expense of Palestinian rights. And no matter how popular scapegoating the vulnerable becomes in the Trump era, denying the downtrodden the basic services they need to get by is no formula for solving any crisis.