It appears that the Biden administration has a plan to “reset” relations between the U.S. and the Palestinians. Reportedly, it includes a number of aid initiatives and a renewed emphasis on finding a two-state solution. Also, it is said to include renewed funding for UNRWA, the UN body ostensibly charged with ensuring the welfare of Palestinian refugees. That’s unfortunate, because UNRWA’s policies are a major obstacle to any two-state solution.
UNWRA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees) was established shortly after the Israeli war independence. At that time there were somewhere between 500,000 and 900,000 Palestinian refugees. In 1965, UNRWA decided to extend refugee status to the grandchildren of actual refugees. In 1982, the UN General Assembly extended refugee status to all descendants of the original refugees. Today, UNRWA registers five and a half million Palestinians as refugees. And it maintains that they all have a right to return to land inside the Green Line.
But there is no such right. “The War of Return,” a recent book by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, makes that clear, with a compelling legal and historical analysis. And the authors are certainly not the first to make the point. Nevertheless, for decades, UNRWA has told Palestinian refugees that their situation is temporary, that they need not be resettled, and that the day will come when they can return to what is now the sovereign state of Israel. In addition to being legally unsupported, that position is antithetical to a two-state solution. As Schwartz and Wilf argue, “UNRWA, its policies, and its practices have effectively given an international stamp of approval to the idea that the war of 1948 is not over, and that generations of Palestinian refugees should expect to return to Israel, which would then no longer exist as Jewish state.” Thus, UNRWA promotes the idea that the Palestinians can have it both ways, enjoying a right of self-determination in their own state while demographically threatening Jewish self-determination in Israel. For decades—until the U.S. administration defunded UNWRA in 2018—that message was largely paid for by American tax dollars.
Originally, UNRWA was founded to rehabilitate the refugees. But after years of Arab non-cooperation, it abandoned that task. Nevertheless, its mandate, supported by American funding, was extended. UNWRA’s emphasis then shifted to vocational training and education. There it became a proponent of Palestinian resistance to a two-state solution. As Schwartz and Wilf have documented, “students were primarily indoctrinated with claims of exclusive Palestinian rights over the entire land, the illegitimacy of the Jewish state, and the unprecedented injustice that befell them.” “UNWRA’s schools repeatedly emphasized the idea of a violent return to the territory of the state of Israel.” Thus, “UNWRA’s education system effectively became an instrument for the mobilization of the population of the camps for the Palestinian armed struggle.”
As time went by, it became clear that armed struggle had little chance of success. And so the Palestinian position, supported by UNRWA, has now shifted to an insistence on a right of return as part of any negotiated peace. This has rightly been called an indirect strategy to establish Arab dominance over all of mandate Palestine.
According to UNRWA, nearly all of its employees are Palestinian, with “a small number of international staff.” In the end, it is little more than a Palestinian political organization sponsored by the UN. Renewing American support for it would help further the worst parts of the Palestinian agenda, prolonging the conflict and precluding a just resolution. That’s not a reset—it’s just more misery for everyone. There are a number of initiatives Mr. Biden can choose that would improve the lives of the Palestinians and help promote a two-state solution. Funding UNRWA isn’t one of them.