Former US President Donald Trump did not leave office until he had laid the foundations of new policies concerning aid to the Palestinian people by Gulf countries, who also signed Washington-brokered normalisation deals with Israel. It now appears that halting donations to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is required for sealing the deals.
The UAE and Bahrain decided to slash funding to the UNRWA in 2020, the year that saw the signing of the Abraham Accords which are the US-brokered agreements that have ushered in public rapprochements between Israel and several Arab states for the first time. Last year, the UAE and Bahrain normalised ties with Israel, breaking with the traditional Arab consensus that restoration of diplomatic relations can only be undertaken when concessions have been made in the peace process to the benefit of the Palestinians. Israel has not held substantive peace talks since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assumed office in 2009.
The UAE donated $51.8 million to UNRWA in 2018 and the same amount again in 2019, but in 2020 it gave the agency just $1 million, UNRWA Spokesperson Sami Mshasha stated after it was first reported by the Centre for Near East Policy Research in its annual transparency report on UNRWA for 2020. The report added that Bahrain had also cut funds, but did not provide figures.
“We are really hoping that in 2021 they will go back to the levels of the previous years,” Mshasha told Al-Ahram Weekly. “The Gulf states have been the major traditional donors of the agency for decades, especially in terms of funding budgets allocated to emergency and implementing projects.”
The UAE as the current chair of the UNRWA advisory committee was strongly criticised for cutting aid. In response, in an official statement to Reuters last week, the Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Al-Hashimy confirmed that the move takes place by way of reconsidering ways to “enhance effectiveness of aid”. She denied that the aid reduction was related to the UAE establishing ties with Israel, saying that the UAE was pushing forward with support for organisations that utilise funds efficiently amid the coronavirus crisis, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Speaking of the UAE obligation to keeping its donation commitment, Mshasha said, “the donation is a sovereignly-considered decision and the agency does not influence it in any way”. In fact, there was a public shock following the decision to cut aid. “The Gulf reductions in support to UNRWA are extremely ill-timed and ill-advised,” said Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Palestinians have harshly criticised the Arab countries that signed the Abraham Accords, brokered by Trump, as they considered it a move of betrayal to their 70-year cause. “If the Gulf discontinues or greatly reduces support, it will be a signal to the Palestinians that the Trump plan lives and breathes,” said Hassan.
The Biden administration announced last month that it would restore aid to the Palestinians, including refugees. Hassan confirmed that the flow of Gulf state donations is reliant on the US decision on the matter. “The administration should send a clear message to Gulf states that it would like to see support from Gulf countries increase rather than decrease,” the human rights lawyer added.
Critics of UNRWA say it perpetuates the refugee problem created by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the Palestinians’ demand of a “right of return” for the refugees and their descendants. Israel adamantly rejects the idea of a right of return, which if fully implemented would leave the country with a Palestinian majority.
“Israel has had a love-hate relationship with UNRWA since its inception,” Hassan revealed. “Though UNRWA is a humanitarian relief agency providing essential services to Palestinians, its very existence is testament to Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight and the enduring nature of the refugee claims.” At the same time, UNRWA relieves Israel of its responsibility to provide services to refugees.
About scenarios of liquidating the agency, Hassan confirmed that Israel and interest groups in the US have worked on discrediting the agency in the hope that it would lose donations. UNRWA was thrown into “the worst financial crisis it has experienced in its 72-year history following the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to summarily withdraw US funding,” said Ardi Imseis, professor of international law at Queen’s University, and former UNRWA legal counsel. The US, historically UNRWA’s largest single donor, had cut its contributions from $360 million to $60million in 2018 and then to zero for 2019.
The Biden administration has announced its likely renewal of aid, but Ardi believes “it is as yet unclear whether pre-2018 levels of support from Washington will be resumed in full”. Trump’s decision to cut UNRWA aid and the UAE and Bahrain following raise questions about the possibility of liquidating the UNRWA, according to one report by Le Monde. The French newspaper revealed in late 2020 that Israel is moving to liquidate the agency and is urging the UAE to follow its plan.
Imseis ruled out the possibility of the agency’s liquidation: “The UNRWA is a subsidiary organ of the United Nations General Assembly. Only the assembly that’s made up of 193 members, has the authority to alter its mandate. No state can, on its own, impose changes on the agency,” Imseis confirmed, highlighting UNRWA’s significant role in keeping regional stability and being an institutional expression of the UN’s permanent responsibility for the question of Palestine until it is resolved in accordance with international law.
According to the UN, UNRWA provides education, healthcare and other vital services to some 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, mainly descendants of the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven out of Israel during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly