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Wars extended by diplomatic irregularity

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:

Since Israel was created in 1948 the United States has been the region’s crucial actor. US presidents have brokered peace deals, provided Israel with security guarantees and the Palestinians with reassurance that they have not been abandoned. Washington stood ready to douse a fire if the dry tinder of rage and discontent in the Holy Land burst into flames. Donald Trump, however, appears more arsonist than firefighter.The Trump administration has cut aid funding to the Palestinians and slashed its contributions to UNRWA the UN agency that supports more than 5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. These cuts have hit hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people already. Israeli security officials privately warn that the move could backfire badly setting fire to the ground” by deepening an economic crisis in the West  ank and Gaza. Reports suggest the president is unperturbed. He wants to end all UNRWA funding, and impose a ban that would prevent other nations making up for the US cuts. This is a recipe for chaos: what will happen to the 500,000 children that UNRWA teaches or the half of Gazans who rely on UNRWA for food? The US provides about $350m annually to UNRWA, more than a quarter of the organisation’s annual budget of $1.2bn. Mr Trump’s policy risks the security and stability of nations. Worse is set to follow. The Trump administration wants to end UNRWA’s policy of recognising the descendants of Palestinian refugees as refugees too.

Instead of 5 million refugees that have a “right to return” to their ancestral homes, there would be a few hundred thousand. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, went further, saying that Palestinian refugees’ right of return a demand critical to Palestinians and anathema to Israel ought to be off the table. These are dangerous moves in a dangerous region. The issue of Palestinian refugees’ right to return, like the status of Jerusalem, was meant to be decided by talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is the child of both catastrophe and failure. The catastrophe or Nakba, as Palestinians call it was the displacement of hundreds of thousands in the conflict that led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.The failure is more complicated; at its heart is the lack of an equitable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict amid the expansion of Israeli settlement building and the ever-diminishing horizon for a peace deal.

Over the years those who originally fled their homes have had children, and their children have had children, and so the issue has become no longer one simply of displacement of the original refugees but about a fair resolution for a group of about 5 million people who still look to Palestine and what their families lost. In an ideal world, UNRWA would no longer be necessary. But it is very necessary, providing services including education in areas ranging from Gaza and Bethlehem to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Few confronting the disclosure that the Trump administra tion is poised to fully withdraw its funding from UNRWA have been left in any doubt about the reasoning behind it. Officials have made clear they see the threat of cuts to Palestinians as a lever to persuade them to agree to a White House-imposed peace deal largely in step with Israel’s vision, and a way to redefine and reduce by a massive order of magnitude who is actually a refugee. While there is no mystery over the fact a Trump administra tion that has already unilaterally recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and is full of fervent pro-Israel advocates made the threat, it is less clear what Trump and his advisers on the issue not least his son-in-law Jared Kushner hope will be the outcome of such moves, in particular the squeezing of US aid to Palestinians. Various overlapping theories are in circulation. The first is that Kushner and his team believe a browbeaten Palestinian leadership can be bullied into a deal on the White House’s terms an assessment few experts endorse. The Trump administration has announced it will cut all US funding for the main UN programme for Palestinian refugees, a move with potentially devastating impacts for five million people who rely on its schools, healthcare, and social services. The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation,” the US State Department said in a statement, adding it was not willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden” for the UN Relief and Works Agency.

The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said: The loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction. Trump’s cut to funding for Palestinian refugees could lead to disaster | Mick Dumper.The issue of Palestinian refugees, and whether those abroad would be allowed to return to a future Palestinian state or be compensated, is one of the three key issues at the heart of the Middle East peace process, along with the status of Jerusalem and the borders of that state.Trump has already unilaterally intervened on the Jerusalem issue in Israel’s favour by recognising it as the Israeli capital. UNRWA was founded in 1949 after the first Arab-Israel war and the exodus of around 700,000 refugees who fled or were driven out of Israel on its founding as a state. Netanyahu has said UNRWA should be abolished and its responsibilities taken over by the main UN refugee agency, UNHCR. There had been speculation for some time that the Trump administration had been moving in this direction, amid unconfirmed claims that senior officials had suggested to at least one host country that UNRWA funding for Palestinian refugees there could be replaced by bilateral US funding. Trump cuts jeopardise lives of millions of Palestinian refugees, UN warns Critics have suggested US threats to cut aid to persuade Palestinians to accept a peace plan is a crude form of leverage. Aaron David Miller, the head of the Middle East programme at the Wilson centre thinktank and a former Middle East adviser to several US secretaries of state

This is part of a broader issue with a president who sees every alliance as a transaction. We have seen it with the Europeans with Nato and we have seen it with Syria as well. This is clearly a political campaign to pressure [the Palestinians] as well as to save money, and it’s a deadly combination.Miller, like many in the foreign policy establishment, argues that there will never be a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue that satisfies Palestinians, but said UNRWA ‘serves a need’ acknowledged by many Israeli officials even as they have campaigned against it. A second theory is predicated on a reading that Kushner and his team are more realistic, anticipating the failure of Trump’s boast that he can secure the “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians. In that reading, knowing there is no deal to be won, the Trump administration’s moves are seen instead as a destructive resetting of the long-understood parameters of US foreign policy in the Middle East, including how a peace deal might look. Then there is a final hypothesis: that this is nothing more than crude political signalling ahead of the US midterm elections in November, throwing pro-Israel US Christian evangelicals, to whom Trump recently appealed for support in a closed-door meeting, another bone after his recognition of Jerusalem. What is missing from all these interpretations, however, is any evidence of much understanding of the driving forces in Palestinian politics and where they overlap with security issues.

The places that will suffer the brunt of both the US aid cuts already announced and cuts to UNRWA funding will be exactly those UNRWA-run camps where the poorest Palestinians live in Gaza and the West Bank, which gave birth to the Fatah movement and Hamas. Outside the occupied Palestinian territories the issue of Palestinian refugees is no less crucial, not least in Jordan where about 2 million people are registered with UNWRA as refugees, with many also having full Jordanian citizenship. But beyond the humanitarian impact and potential for unrest is the greatest intangible of all. As the Trump administration appears ready to reinforce its already starkly one-sided approach to the the Israel-Palestine issue, it raises the prospect of damage to US diplomacy on an issue it has made its own. This seems certain to far outlast Trump’s time in office, neutralising the ability of the US to act as a mediator for years to come. Trump’s moves risk creating a dangerous vacuum where as wiser heads both in the State Department, Pentagon and Israel have cautioned neither Palestinians or Israelis will be immune from the fallout

Writer and Columnist