Whenever I contemplate the state of the Arabs and the Arab world, I become more and more convinced that the difference between word and deed is what distinguishes developed nations from those still struggling under the plights of underdevelopment. As we sustain continuous slaps and blows from others, we imagine that expressions of denial and condemnation are a sufficient defence or assertion of our position.
As others move steadily and relentlessly towards the realisation of their objectives, we move in the opposite direction: away from our objectives. The result is that the ground gained by others increases while the remaining ground left to us shrinks.
The harebrained US President Donald Trump’s recent decision to cut his country’s contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) deliberately targets the more than five million Palestinian refugees aided by this UN agency after all avenues to food, clothing and anything resembling a dignified life were closed to them.
The inhumane and anti-humanitarian decision followed yet another one: his unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of the Zionist occupying power in Palestine. A major common denominator between these two injustices that triggered worldwide condemnation is the Arabs’ failure to take any concrete action in response.
After Trump announced his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I launched an appeal, in this column, to Arab states to respond by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.
I did not have in mind the convention of some Arab or Islamic conference simply in order to proclaim this. Just as the Trump declaration was followed by a tangible executive step, namely to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, I believed that our declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state should be followed by tangible steps that would help the Arabs gain ground and ultimately force the Americans to reverse their action.
We could, for example, have taken advantage of the international outcry against the Trump decision in order to expand the scope of recognition for the capital of Palestine and, indeed, for the Palestinian state itself.
Some countries are still reluctant to do this because they feel that recognition of the Palestinian state should only take place within the framework of a comprehensive solution, which is to say with the Israeli stamp of approval. Yet, the UN partition resolution of 1947, which provided for the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, also provided for the establishment of the Palestinian state.
The former was established in spite of Arab opposition, so why should not the latter be established without Israeli approval? The universal rejection of the Trump decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital offered a major opportunity for us to advocate this reasoning as the international community had never been so ready to accept it or, at least, to discuss it.
This was all the more the case now that the US had breached the implicit international agreement that decisions regarding such delicate matters as the status of Jerusalem should not be taken unilaterally. Trump had not even consulted with the US’s closest European allies beforehand.
The number of Arab countries that have recognised Israel has increased over the years. This includes the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) which struck from its charter the article rejecting recognition of Israel.
But is the Israel recognised by Arab states the same Israel that usurped occupied Jerusalem and claimed it as its “eternal capital”? The Israel recognised by some Arab countries had its capital in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was one of the issues on the agenda of the final status negotiations the purpose of which was to reach a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict in accordance with the resolutions and principles of international law. Is recognition of the Israeli state still valid after such a flagrant abuse of international legitimacy?
Surely the Israel unilateral decision to annex Jerusalem and claim it as its capital, coming on top of its wrongful seizure and perpetuated occupation of Arab territory, confirms that Israel is a rogue state. Why should anyone recognise a rogue state? Again, the Arabs had a unique opportunity to promote discussion of this and other such questions amongst the international community that opposed US support for the usurpation of Jerusalem. But did we take advantage of this opportunity? Or did we merely cry and wail while the Trump administration pressed ahead with arrangements to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem?
Today, we are facing the follow-through punch. The US decision to cut funding to UNRWA — on which Palestinian refugees are entirely dependant — comes while we are still feeling the sting of the Jerusalem decision. According to the agency, the US gave it $350 million in 2017. This year, Washington reduced the amount by about $110 million, which is to say by around a third. On Thursday last week, the State Department spokeswoman announced that her government was withholding $45 million. This followed a previous announcement that it would withhold $65 million.
How did we react? The answer: exactly as we did in the case of Washington’s decision to move its embassy: scream and shout for while and that was it. To those who wonder what else we could have done, my response is, let’s take a look at those who choose to act, instead of just talk.
EU countries were also angered by the US decision to cut back aid to Palestinian refugees. But they did not stop with statements of denunciation and condemnation. Belgium, for example, announced that it would increase its donation to UNRWA by $23.3 million in order to help offset American tightfistedness. The Netherlands followed suit, announcing that it would increase its contribution by $15 million.
Would it not have been more appropriate for Arab countries to take this kind of initiative before others? This is not a political issue here. We are speaking about food and shelter for more than five million Palestinians.
The numbers of Palestinian refugees increased over the years since 1948, when hundreds of thousands of them were driven from their homes. The US, which was one of the first countries to recognise the State of Israel that established itself on the ruins of Palestine in 1948, also contributed to the creation of UNRWA the following year.
At the time, Washington agreed this was a humanitarian responsibility to be shouldered by the international community which had sanctioned the establishment of Israel. Today, the US has reneged on this responsibility and is exploiting humanitarian aid for political ends. Surely the time has come for the Arabs to do something. Or are we still bent on talking while others act?
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly