The United States is the most pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian country in the world. That’s not an exaggeration—that’s in terms of actual dollars. But while our aid to Israel has been well documented, our aid to Palestinians and to Palestinian refugees in particular is far less known.
The numbers are surprising. Last year, the US pledged $364 million to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN program that provides Palestinian refugees with education, healthcare, and other social services in camps around the Middle East. America’s contribution accounted for one-third of all monies pledged in 2017, which was two times more the European Union, five times more than Sweden, six times more than Saudi Arabia, and 40 times more than Kuwait. Nobody else came close. And that’s not even counting all the other aid we give to Palestinians outside of UNRWA. When it comes to Palestinians, the US taxpayer puts her money where her mouth is.
The Administration has…determined that the United States will not make additional contributions to UNRWA. When we made a U.S. contribution of $60 million in January, we made it clear that the United States was no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs that we had assumed for many years…
Beyond the budget gap itself and failure to mobilize adequate and appropriate burden sharing, the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years—tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries—is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years. The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.
First, the State Department is right: UNRWA’s “entitled beneficiaries” are “endlessly and exponentially expanding.” The 1948 Arab invasion of Israel created 850,000 refugees who ended up in nearby countries, but today the Palestinian refugee population stands at 5.3 million—about the same size as the country of Norway.
How did the population grow 500 percent in 70 years? It’s because Palestinian refugees, unlike other refugees, pass their refugee status on to their offspring. Exiles from Syria, Rwanda, and Myanmar don’t have this privilege. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN agency that handles these and all other refugees, is tasked with “ending statelessness.” But UNRWA seems to be tasked with the opposite mission: preserving statelessness.
So UNRWA grows and grows and grows. In the absence of a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, that growth shows no signs of letting up. Neither does the financial burden on the US taxpayer. To date, no one has made a compelling argument for why American citizens should subsidize Palestinian refugees, why those subsidies should be directed to a mediocre welfare program, or why UNRWA is the best agency to manage it. At current rates, the Palestinian refugee population will be large enough by 2088 to populate Australia. Trump is right: the business model is unsustainable. (I won’t even get into UNRWA’s incitement here.)
Second, it is possible that the business model isn’t helpful to begin with. Welfare models usually aren’t. Anyone who has visited Palestinian refugee camps knows that they are cesspools of shoddy housing, inferior education, and substandard healthcare. The unemployment rate is high. Crime is rampant. Even Palestinian security forces are afraid to enter the camps. The State Department’s call for new models and approaches to help the refugees is not only correct but obvious and overdue. Christians who see Palestinians as human beings made in the image of God should not be satisfied with the status quo. Those who are satisfied don’t know what the status quo looks like.
The long-term answer, of course, is to move Palestinians out of refugee status and into normal life. Ending statelessness should be the goal here, too. This means finding a solution that both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) will find acceptable. The most likely path is a grand bargain between Israel, the PLO, and the three Arab states that house Palestinian refugee camps (Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan), backed by the US and other guarantors, that allows some number of refugees to return to areas governed by the Palestinian Authority; gives monetary compensation to others; and provides others with a path to citizenship in countries around the world. But this means Arab states need to step up, and Palestinian leaders need to tell their people what everyone else already knows: they’re not going to get everything they want.
Third—and this is important—disruption will come at a cost. Trump has every right to scrap American support for UNRWA, but Trump will have to accept the consequences if he proceeds irresponsibly. In the short term, his decision may lead to a spike in violence, and critics will undoubtedly lay the blame for fatalities at his feet. UNRWA has built a system of dependence over 70 years. Pulling the plug on social services for 5 million disgruntled and unemployed refugees overnight may not be in anyone’s interests. Prudence is crucial.
The status quo for Palestinian refugees is appalling and needs disrupting. But Trump should move cautiously, redirecting US aid in a way that upholds American interests, improves Palestinian lives, promotes stability, and moves the refugee issue toward final resolution.
This means finally releasing his big peace plan—and sooner rather than later.
Robert Nicholson is the executive director of the Philos Project and the co-editor of Providence.
Photo Credit: Entrance to Palestinian refugee camp with symbolic key. By Alan Mayers, via Flickr.