By Mohammed Balawi
There are many in the Arab world who fell about laughing when the US ambassador to the UN started to lecture them about how rich Arab countries did not do enough to help their Palestinian brothers. “The US provided $364 million to UNRWA and another $300 million in bilateral assistance last year,” explained Nimrata “Nikki” Haley. She declared that her country has provided $6 billion to the Palestinians and, in an act of self-praise, she described the American people as very generous and humanitarian. The current administration, in fact, has been seeking ways to help the Palestinian people — “whose plight is of genuine concern to us” — she proclaimed. Warning the Palestinians that Americans are not fools, Haley said more or less that they should not bite the generous hand that feeds them. Furthermore, others should extend their hands as well.
Those “others” that Haley referred are America’s allies, the Arab monarchs in the Gulf and rulers such as Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador pointed out that Riyadh spent over $6 billion in humanitarian assistance for the Palestinians over the past decade alone.
Why was Haley so hostile? It was a smokescreen to cover the cut of US support for UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees; she used the Trump mantra about US generosity and allies who are not paying their fair share.
US President Donald Trump, of course, believes that he is an extraordinary leader and deal maker who is going to “solve” the “Palestinian problem” permanently. We heard almost two years ago about his “Deal of the Century”, but the details have still not been disclosed officially. It is clear from events on the ground, though, that Washington has adopted the Israeli far-right position, and is striking no deal; instead, the status quo is changing ever more in favor of Israel, with faits accomplis being forced on the Palestinians and anyone else who might think about objecting.
From the American point of view, the main hurdle to the deal — which would eradicate the Palestinian cause — is the refugee issue. To overcome this, Trump’s team seems to have an Israeli plan in all but name: redefine what a Palestinian refugee is, with total disregard for international law; declare them to be only those people who left Palestine in 1948 and not their offspring; and cut the number of refugees from more than 5 million to just 40,000 very elderly people.
Washington blames UNRWA for turning a temporary issue into a permanent problem, and so the Agency itself must be part of that problem. In cutting vital aid to UNRWA, the Trump administration first maligned it and discredited its staff by accusing them of mismanaging resources. The funding crisis now facing UNRWA threatens the vital services that it provides for millions of Palestinians in refugee camps across the occupied Palestinian territories and neighboring countries.
This is serious. UNRWA, for example, runs hundreds of schools in its five areas of operation, providing free basic education for around half a million Palestine refugee children, of which just under half are girls. The Agency also runs 143 primary health facilities, with almost nine million annual patient visits, while providing financial assistance to the most impoverished Palestinian refugees, around 1.2 million of whom live in absolute poverty. Furthermore, UNRWA runs 48 women’s program centers, 33 community rehabilitation centers and 43 community-managed fund schemes. Roughly one third of all Palestinian refugees live in 58 recognized refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
UNRWA maintains, updates and preserves Palestine refugees’ records. More than 17 million documents, including birth certificates, property deeds and registration documents, some of them dating back to pre-1948 Palestine, have been scanned and preserved.
If, as the US and Israel want, UNRWA is closed down, then the burden of providing such services would be dumped on the host countries Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. As such, Washington is seeking financial help from major Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Some sources quote billions and even trillions of dollars as the cost of absorbing Palestinian refugees as citizens in the host countries and building the infrastructure therein to cater for them. Regional governments are reluctant to do this, which explains Haley’s anger.
As for the Palestinians who live inside historical Palestine — the West Bank, Gaza Strip and land seized by Israel in 1948 — a gradual and voluntarily transfer policy will be applied, where they have either to leave their homeland, or be herded like cattle in closed zones, with unbearable conditions intended to make them migrate “voluntarily” in search of a better life.
The occupied West Bank and Jerusalem look set to be annexed by Israel as even more illegal settlements take up land set aside for an “independent state of Palestine”. Their Palestinian residents will probably be shuttled off to Jordan. As for Gaza, it will be put under intense pressure to swap security and a decent livelihood for the sake of Israel’s own security. Facilities such as an airport, sea port, duty-free zone and industrial areas may be built in Egypt for use by the Palestinians currently corralled in the Gaza Strip.
What about the two state solution? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently that Trump supports the idea of Israeli security control on land supposedly intended to be “Palestine”. Netanyahu and many other Israeli leaders have been saying for decades that they will not allow any sovereignty other than their own in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and River Jordan, and it does not matter if the Palestinians and the rest of the world call it a Palestinian state, it will all be “Israel”.
This is how Trump’s “Deal of the Century” looks set to materialize. It is no deal at all for the Palestinians, but total capitulation. The decimation of the Palestinian refugees is the first stage of the annulment of their legitimate right to return to their land, and the end of the “State of Palestine” will be signaled before it even comes into existence.