As you walk down the alleyways of the Palestinian refugee camps across the Levant you often hear a curious refrain that the refugees utter in their all-too-common moments of indignation and desperation: Mā alnā al Allah w krt al mou’n (We have no recourse except God and the ration card). The refrain refers to the card that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) issued to the vast majority of Palestinians in the period after the Nakba. In the absence of a worldly solution to the seventy-year-old Palestinian question, those who dwell in the fifty-nine refugee camps administered by UNRWA find solace in the Almighty and hold tight to their UNRWA card—not only in order to receive rations to maintain their bare life but, more importantly, to claim their political status as refugees of a human-made calamity rather than victims of a natural disaster.
Following the UN General Assembly’s overwhelming rejection of the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—after which Nikki Haley infamously took names down and threatened to remember them when ‘called upon to once again make the world’s largest contribution to the United Nations’—the US administration announced its plan to cut aid to the Palestinians. Trump tweeted that the United States pays ‘the Palestinians HUNDRED[S] OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect’. The threat to cut aid was viewed as a direct reaction to the Palestinian Authority’s defiance of Trump’s decision to take Jerusalem ‘off the table’.
Aid observers noted that the United States’ annual $300-million assistance hardly serves the real interests of the Palestinians and that the USAID agency disperses its funding in ways that accord with Israel’s plans to maintain its occupation of Palestinian land. The Geneva-based aid and development researcher Alaa Tartir argues that American aid to the Palestinians plays a functionally integral role, at least indirectly, in maintaining the policies of the Israeli occupation. As he puts it, ‘American assistance to the Palestinians is American support to Israel and its security’.
But if this is the case, why has the most Israel-friendly US administration ever threatened to take such drastic measures?
In reality the US administration does not want to cut funding to projects that serve Israel’s interests and security, but it does want to cut funding to UNRWA as an organisation that has provided services to Palestinian refugees for the last sixty-eight years and in doing so has helped bind them together in various, and unintended, ways.
In a recent article the veteran Palestinian activist Munir Shafiq cogently argues that the US decision to withhold funding to UNRWA is a sequel to the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The two moves, he says, are part of the same strategy. For Shafiq, the future might prove that the move to cut funding to UNRWA is as dangerous as the decision about Jerusalem—perhaps more so. Providing refugees with subsistence has always been UNRWA’s declared humanitarian mandate. However, its longevity, to echo Joseph Massad, symbolises the persistence of the Palestinian question. In this light the US decision may be seen as an action designed to deprive Palestinians of one of their remaining political cards.
UNRWA was formed in 1949 as an interim institution to shoulder the humanitarian aspects of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which affirmed Palestinian refugees’ right to return and to compensation. Since then UNRWA has maintained a presence and services in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Essentially, after the 1948 destruction of all common institutional structures of the Palestinian people, UNRWA became the only institution around which a common Palestinian experience could develop.
Today UNRWA provides assistance and nominal protection to some five million Palestinian refugees. Resolution 194 bequeathed UNRWA with ambiguity regarding the relationship between the humanitarian and the political. As an interim humanitarian institution, its activities were seen as a prelude to Palestinians achieving their political restitution. However, as the interim became a permanent state, UNRWA acquired new symbolic significance. If the famous house keys kept by expelled Palestinian refugees reference their historical rights to their land and properties, the UNRWA card signifies their ongoing suffering and longing to exercise their self-determination—including the right to return to their ancestral homeland.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the US administration’s decision. After a meeting with Nikki Haley, he called for UNRWA to be disbanded and for it to gradually transfer its funds to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘with clear criteria for supporting real refugees, rather than fictitious refugees, which is what is happening today under UNRWA’. Netanyahu seems to have no problem with acknowledging the empirical existence of Palestinian refugees as a subset of a global refugee population, but he wants to negate the political specificity of their experience. For Netanyahu what is fictitious is UNRWA’s reference to Palestine and Palestinians as a determinate political problem tied to the exclusionary nature of the Zionist project that displaced the Palestinian people in the first place.
The UNHCR’s mandate does not insist on repatriation to a specific territory, and it grants refugee status to individuals rather than recognising the rights of refugees based on their collective national prerogatives. UNRWA, on the other hand, enshrines the intergenerational transmission of refugee status, extending this status to the fifth generation of Palestinians who are now being born into refugee camps. Considering that Israel is still refusing repatriation and compensation, the UNRWA mandate is still of vital importance precisely because it exceeds the limited and individualising reach of the UNHCR. The end of UNRWA would cut the unique link it embodies between the humanitarian and the political dimensions of the Palestinian refugee question. For Netanyahu, UNRWA sustains five generations of ‘fictitious’ refugees whose mere presence as holders of its cards challenges the ceaseless Israeli attempt to create ‘facts on the ground’.
Over the years, Palestinian refugees themselves have had paradoxical relationships with UNRWA. They have resented its humanitarian mandate and its treatment of them as victims while at the same time engaging with its processes and activities in their effort to reconstitute their political identity. As Australian diplomat Robert Bowker observes, UNRWA, perhaps despite itself, played a functional role in the Palestinian forging of a ‘sense of identity as refugees’ and in the refugees’ claims for justice and perceptions of others’ roles and responsibilities. Many leaders of the Palestinian national liberation movement studied and taught at UNRWA schools. Ghassan Kanafani, the famous Palestinian writer who was assassinated by Mossad in 1972, commenced his revolutionary career at the age of sixteen as a teacher in UNRWA schools, writing for and about his refugee students. For decades, education in the refugee camps and Palestinian national self-assertion went hand in hand.
We could say that the Palestinian refugees’ relationship to UNRWA is an early instance of what Partha Chatterjee has conceptualised as the ‘politics of the governed’, which he understands as an emergent form that springs from the messy intersection of elite and subaltern politics. For Chatterjee this intersection engenders a political society that relies on existing institutional, communal and communication structures to make claims and formulate demands. In the refugee camps, Palestinians have used the traditional authorities (mukhtars) of their destroyed villages, popular committees, political factions and trade unions to engage UNRWA. In the process, they have constituted themselves as a political society. Palestinian refugees, like their Indian subaltern brethren, know that agencies like UNRWA cannot provide more than humanitarian assistance. Nonetheless, being eligible for this assistance opened a space for claims and representation that, in the Palestinian case, translate into a demand for recognition and restitution.
Viewed in this context, cutting funds to UNRWA is an attempt to dismantle one of the two general institutions that have shaped Palestinian life since the 1948 Nakba, the other one being the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), established in 1965. Although the two organisations have played different roles in the modern Palestinian experience, UNRWA and the PLO tacitly engaged in a common project of nation-building, in contrast to the regional experience in which, as Riccardo Bocco observes, ‘state-building preceded nation-building’. UNRWA and the PLO, directly and indirectly, engaged in reconstituting the institutions of nationhood but, for better or worse, never delivered on the statehood front. The Oslo Accords diminished the political and representative status of the PLO as the legitimate expression of Palestinian collective aspirations. With the formation of the Palestinian authority, a reverse process ensued: to cite Bocco again, ‘Palestinians as a stateless nation began to witness the formation of nationless state’. In other words, the making of the Palestinian Authority was premised on the un-making of the Palestinians.
Undermining the principal role that refugees played in modern Palestinian history has been the key target of these different initiatives and strategies. Eliminating the refugees from the scene is inseparable from Israel’s ongoing effort to prevent the Palestinians from achieving their aspirations. Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling aptly called this process ‘politicide’, by which he means ‘a process that has, as its ultimate goal, the dissolution—or, at the very least, a great weakening—of the Palestinian people’s existence as a legitimate social, political, and economic entity’. The ultimate aim of this process is the undermining of the possibility of any meaningful self-determination. Dissolving UNRWA, then, is the last straw in the ongoing effort to undermine the political and national viability of the Palestinian people. It aims to attack the most vulnerable and the most formidable Palestinian constituency. It is an attack against those who are holding tight to one of the last political cards the Palestinians have.
The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once wrote ‘when the camp smiles—the grand cities scowl’. Let us hope so.