No UNRWA, no Nakba?

No UNRWA, no Nakba?

The Trump administration has decided to cut all U.S. funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). This is the second such step after the contentious decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. UNRWA was created in 1949 to resettle the 700,000 Palestinians who had been displaced to establish an independent state of Israel. Palestinians see May 15, 1948, when modern Israel was founded, as “Nakba,” the day of catastrophe. Does that mean that when there is no UNRWA, there is no Nakba at all? Is the issue of Palestinian refugees and the return to their homeland now eternally off the table? I don’t think so. 

This all came out in a leaked memo from Jared Kushner’s office about a month ago and it is a reality. President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law wrote to his colleagues: “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA. … Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.” This reminds me of Facebook’s old motto: “Move fast and break things.”

Even they had to change that line back in 2014, but Facebook was still accused of having broken American democracy after the 2016 election. The firm still has difficulties with the lawmakers and regulators everywhere. It is obvious now that we are in the age of “move fast and make things.” Startups today are not about breaking things but finding sustainable solutions to chronic problems.

Trump’s secret plan to fix the Middle East, however, still appears to be in breaking mode. See what Geoff Aronson wrote in the American conservative the other day? “The fog enveloping Trump’s deal of the century is clearing, revealing a U.S.-led effort to simply remove Palestinians from the diplomatic and humanitarian equation. This policy is far more ambitious than Barack Obama’s ill-famed preference to “lead from behind.” But rather than solve the issue, Trump is implementing a destructive and destabilizing plan to simply wish the Palestine problem away. Adults know that Palestinians don’t just disappear into thin air when you shut your eyes. The UNRWA decision is more serious than the Jerusalem decision, if you ask me.

Why? Have a look at Gaza, for example. Social assistance by UNRWA has played a key role in maintaining the livelihood of the Gazans. The World Bank says that “UNRWA assistance have helped reduce poverty levels in Gaza as without them an additional 11 percent of the Gazan population would immediately fall below the poverty line. UNRWA funding also provides food supplies to about one million Gazans and operates 275 schools and 22 health facilities that mostly provide services to the poor across the Gaza Strip.” Meanwhile, both Palestinian radicals and Israeli hardliners accuse UNRWA of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem. The Israeli hardliners just want to drive the refugees away into other Arab countries. Palestinians think that UNRWA coddles refugees, and thinks that without it, they will be more likely to take up arms.

Some say that without UNRWA assistance, there is not much of a life in Gaza. That’s true. When after a long break due to the Hamas takeover, I visited the strip last year. The place seemed to have frozen in a long forgotten time. I can’t imagine what will happen without UNRWA assistance. It will be an even harsher place to live in, and that pain will inevitably lead to more violence. It doesn’t take much to see that.

Yet every day, UNRWA remains an important asset for Palestinians. UNRWA is also important for Israelis as it shares their burden for sustaining the Palestinian population. Peace cannot be built upon human misery. Denial is no way of finding a common solution. I see Trump’s deal of the century as “old wine in a new bottle.” What Israeli hardliners have been talking about for a long time in terms of a solution is now becoming American policy. Jerusalem and UNRWA moves together with the old “Jordan-Palestine federation” idea. They’re breaking something very big here, and it won’t ever come together again.