Biden Administration Restores Funding to ‘Palestinian Refugee’ Agency; Trump Called it ‘Irredeemably Flawed’

Patrick Goodenough | April 7, 2021 | 10:09pm EDT
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Men unload sacks of flour from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency at a UNRWA refugee camp in Gaza City in February. (Photo by Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)
Men unload sacks of flour from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency at a UNRWA refugee camp in Gaza City in February. (Photo by Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)

( – How many of the more than five million Palestinians who benefit from international funding to a controversial U.N. agency are actually refugees?

The decades-old issue remains a matter of dispute as the Biden administration confirmed Wednesday that it was restoring funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), two-and-a-half years after the Trump administration defunded the agency, describing it as “irredeemably flawed.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. will contribute $150 million in humanitarian assistance for UNRWA, “including education for over 500,000 Palestinian boys and girls, thereby providing hope and stability in UNRWA’s five fields of operation in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

“Funding to UNRWA also provides critical COVID-19 assistance, including healthcare, medicine, and medical supplies, as well as cash and food assistance to families severely impacted by COVID-19,” he said.

Implicitly acknowledging concerns about the agency’s operations, Blinken added that the U.S. was “deeply committed to ensuring that our partnership with UNRWA promotes neutrality, accountability, and transparency.”

And, echoing the administration’s rationale for re-engaging with other U.N. bodies shunned by its predecessor – including the Human Rights Council and World Health Organization – he reiterated its view that “the United States needs to be at the table to ensure that the reforms advance efficiencies and are in accord with our interests and values.”

Between 1950 and 2018, U.S. taxpayers accounted for more than $6 billion in funding to UNRWA. The U.S. was the biggest donor by far, contributing about one-third of the annual budget in 2017.

UNRWA has long stoked controversy, for two broad reasons. The first is the fact that it has been implicated in anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, and terrorism-promoting propaganda, including in school curricula.

Reacting to Blinken’s announcement, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Gilad Erdan said the State Department should have conditioned a restoration of aid on UNRWA reforming its educational curriculum, adding that he had voiced his objections earlier to the State Department.

“We believe that this U.N. agency for so-called ‘refugees’ should not exist in its current format,” Erdan said. “UNRWA schools regularly use materials that incite against Israel and the twisted definition used by the agency to determine who is a ‘refugee’ only perpetuates the conflict.”

The latter remark alluded to the second controversy, relating to UNRWA’s mission and reason for existence.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only one globally with a bespoke U.N. refugee agency. In all other contexts, refugees fall under the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Also unique is the way Palestinian refugees are defined. UNRWA views as a Palestinian refugee any Arab who had lived in the area in question for just two years before having “lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”

(The U.N. also established UNRWA to deal with refugees on only one side of the conflict. The fledgling State of Israel absorbed more than 700,000 Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries, many of whom fled persecution, confiscation or destruction of property, and discriminatory laws.)

The official definition of a Palestinian refugee was later broadened to include “the descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children.” Compared to an estimated 750,000 who left their homes during the conflict – an Arab-instigated war aimed at destroying the nascent State of Israel – UNRWA takes responsibility today for 5.6 million people in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

(The 750,000 estimate lies roughly halfway between the contemporaneous Israeli and Palestinian estimates of the number of Arabs displaced in the fighting – 580,000 and 914,000 respectively.)

Many Palestinians living in Jordan acquired Jordanian citizenship and are no longer displaced. In any other context, under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, the refugee definition ceases to apply where a person “has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality.”

Furthermore, according to the official Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 64 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip are today defined as refugees – even though Gaza has been under exclusive Palestinian control for the past 16 years.

A UNRWA-run school in Gaza City. (Photo by Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)
A UNRWA-run school in Gaza City. (Photo by Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Taxpayers deserve basic truths’

During the Obama administration, a 2012 legislative amendment required the State Department to compile a report determining how many of the Palestinians receiving assistance from UNRWA were in fact refugees.

When eventually completed, the report was classified, and neither the Obama administration nor its successor released it publicly.

Shortly before the end of the Trump administration, however, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued on Twitter that “most Palestinians under UNRWA’s jurisdiction aren’t refugees.”

He said it was estimated that fewer than 200,000 Arabs displaced in 1948 were still alive, “and most others are not refugees by any rational criteria.”

“Taxpayers deserve basic truths: most Palestinians under UNRWA’s jurisdiction aren’t refugees, and UNRWA is a hurdle to peace,” Pompeo tweeted.

The ranking Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas) and Sen. Jim Risch (Idaho), said Wednesday they were “disappointed that the Biden administration has decided to resume funding for UNRWA without securing any reforms from the organization.”

UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini said the agency “could not be more pleased that once again we will partner with the United States to provide critical assistance to some of the most vulnerable refugees across the Middle East and fulfill our mandate to educate and provide primary health care to millions of refugees every day.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric also welcomed the announcement.

“There were a number of countries that had greatly reduced or halted contributions to UNRWA,” he said at a briefing in New York. “We hope that the American decision will lead others to rejoin UNRWA as UNRWA donors.”

After the U.S. cut funding, several other countries followed suit, some in response to allegations of serious corruption including sexual misconduct and nepotism which saw the resignation of Lazzarini’s predecessor in 2019.

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