At the beginning of August 2015, officials at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) announced they would be forced to make significant spending cuts because of a $101 million budget deficit.
Adnan Abu Hasna, an UNRWA spokesman, claimed on Al-Jazeera at the beginning of August that the cut would make it difficult to fulfill UNRWA's mission, despite the deficit being only 17% of the agency's total budget.
Abu Hasna protested that UNRWA functioned to resolve the problem of the Palestinian refugees. UNRWA, he claimed, symbolically embodied the international community's commitment to the Palestinian cause and the return to Palestine.
Abu Hasna admitted that UNRWA is corrupt, but warned that lowering its financial support, which would mean a cut of millions of dollars, would be a blow to 5.5 million Palestinians, including half a million school children (to whose schooling 80% of the agency's expenses were dedicated).
Arab states have contributed generously to construction projects for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but are not willing to invest in helping the Palestinians themselves. This view often borders on contempt, Abu Hasna charged, claiming that the annual contribution of some Arab states was a mere $1000 per capita. He also claimed that because UNRWA's budget was not balanced every year, agency officials were never sure if they would be able to fulfill their obligations. He therefore suggested that donor countries, instead of contributions, should be charged a compulsory annual fee.
Salman Abu Sitta, director of the London-based Palestine Land Society, participated in the same Al-Jazeera interview. He alleged that UNRWA's economic and political problems were a deliberate attempt to destroy the agency, which is all that is left of UN Resolution 194 (regarding the return of the Palestinians to Palestine). He stressed, in accordance with an Arabic principle of tawteen, that there would be no granting Palestinian refugees citizenship in the Arab countries in which they reside. Abu Sitta claimed that Israel was behind a plot to destroy UNRWA, and was the obstacle to realizing the "right of return" to the Palestinian territories by using the "Jewish lobby" in the United States to exert pressure on UNRWA to close its doors. He also claimed that even though the U.S. provided most of UNRWA's budget, it, too, was party to the plot. He claimed that America's annual aid allotment to Israel was $1000 per capita, but only $75 to the Palestinians. He demanded the establishment of a Palestinian body which would demand the Palestinian right of return, and publicize the failure of the Western states that contributed very little but supported the State of Israel, in order to embarrass them.
Abu Sitta ignored the question of the continued existence of the State of Israel and said that the return of the Palestinians to their land was a legitimate solution, one that was "the most assured, unique, easy to accomplish and cheap." The countries of the world had previously been committed to the "return," he continued, but had now altered their positions and belonged to the "Zionist plot" to destroy the Palestinian cause. The problem was not financial, he asserted, but rather one of honoring the commitments of the UN. Resolution 194 dealt with the return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes and it was the responsibility of the world to finance them.
Ann Dismorr (right), the Director of UNRWA in Lebanon, poses with a map that erases the State of Israel and presents all of it as "Palestine." (Image source: Palestinian Authority TV via Palestinian Media Watch)
Before the interview, there was a stormy argument, also on al-Jazeera, between two Palestinian intellectuals, Dr. Hussein Ali Shaaban, who supported the Palestinian Authority, and Dr. Ibrahim Hamami, a physician, who supported Hamas. The issue was the granting of passports [that is, citizenship] to Palestinian refugees in Arab states. Dr. Shaaban was of the opinion that if the Arab states absorbed the Palestinians as citizens with equal rights and responsibilities, it would not negatively affect their right to return to Palestine, that is, cities in Israel such as Haifa, Jaffa, Acre and Safed. It would only serve to make their lives easier during their dispersal. Dr. Hamami objected on the grounds that if the Palestinians became equal citizens in the Arab states, their Palestinian identities would melt away and the refugee problem would be solved without their return to the territory of the "Zionist entity," which was absolutely necessary.
The argument, like the discussion of the UNRWA budget cuts, clearly reflects the desire of the Palestinian political class to preserve the refugee problem at all costs, and not to resolve it in any just way -- not in the Arab states, and not in the Palestinian state that will be established next to Israel.
This argument reflects only a desire to cling to the loopy demand to return to the territory of the State of Israel, while it completely ignores the Jews' discourteous refusal to commit suicide.
Thus, the continued operation of UNRWA means perpetuating the refugee problem, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Jews, and the vanishing prospects for peace.
Others have also weighed in. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum claimed that the international community was using financial excuses to eliminate the Palestinian cause. Palestinian sources claimed the topic was a political game, in which UNRWA was being used as a pawn to sweep the Palestinian issue under the carpet and ignore the "right of return." Ahmed Bahar, head of Hamas's legislative council, also claimed that the Gaza Strip was "set to explode," and that the steps being taken by UNRWA were "a dangerous blow to the Gaza Strip with far-reaching political implications." He also claimed that UNRWA's steps were a clear violation of UN resolutions, the UN charter, agreements concerning refugee status and international law. He warned the donor states of the negative consequences of cutting back on UNRWA's activities.
Dr. Fayiz Abu Shamala, writing in mid-August in "Filastin Line," claimed that a plot to close UNRWA meant the end of the Palestinian issue, and that millions of Palestinian refugees had to march into Zionist-occupied Palestine to destroy it.
It is therefore clear that the Palestinians refuse to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, and are not willing to agree to the return of the refugees to a Palestinian state; their only objective is to destroy and displace the country next door.
Unfortunately, that underlying objective, common to most Palestinians and Europeans, is also perfectly clear to the Israelis. But the Israelis ignore the Palestinians as though they do not exist as anything more than inconvenient numbers. If Israel is genuinely an apartheid state, however, why do its people accept 1.7 million Arabs as citizens, while our racist brother Arabs refuse to?
Does anyone really think the Jews are so stupid as to believe that we, the Arabs who slaughter one another without giving it a second thought, will be particularly generous towards them if we succeed in realizing the right of return to Palestine?
After the senseless agreement the world powers signed with Iran -- an agreement that endangers Arab and Jew alike -- we have to say plainly that the EU's demands on Israel to sign a delusional peace agreement that would only serve to endanger its existence -- are hypocritical at best, and that it is only rational that Israel would refuse.
The only way to solve the problem of the Palestinian refugees is to eliminate the toxic UNRWA, which keeps poisoning the minds of our children with a hate leading to violence; for Arab states to award citizenship to the Palestinians who have been living there for decades anyhow; and to establish a totally demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Bassam Tawil is a scholar based in the Middle East.