Palestinian Refugee Status under Attack as Fatah and Hamas Lock Horns

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

September 3, 2018

The United States government has ended its funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Founded in 1949, a year after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or fled the advancing Israeli forces, the UNRWA has been one of the main providers of vital aid to those refugees. The decision comes on the heels of comments by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations questioning the “right of return” for the millions of Palestinians now living in refugee camps. Israeli commentators have enthusiastically greeted the news, while others in the region continue to be distracted by the intra-Palestinian conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and Israel’s divide and conquer strategy.

Reporting on U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statements at the United Nations, Jerusalem Post’s Michael Wilner notes that “President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations questioned on Tuesday the credibility of Palestinian claims to a ‘right of return’ to lands in modern-day Israel, touching on one of the most sensitive topics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…. ‘UNRWA can stay there, and we can be a donor if they reform’, Haley continued, declining to endorse a proposal to wrap UNRWA – a refugee body devoted exclusively to the Palestinian cause – into the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. ‘We will look back at partnering them’. She called on specific countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, among others – to contribute to UNRWA, noting that the US remains its primary benefactor.”

Unsurprisingly, David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), welcomed the news, pointing out in a Times of Israel op-ed that, according to him, the Palestinian refugee status has been instrumentalized by UN bodies and others to punish the state of Israel: “While the Palestinians are among the world’s largest per capita aid recipients, much of that assistance has been siphoned off to line the pockets of Palestinian officials — who then turn around and seek more funds for their allegedly neglected people…. The whole process is abetted by an elaborate, well-funded UN apparatus, encompassing more than just UNRWA, created by a majority of member states to support the Palestinians. By contrast, among others, Kurds, who have a compelling case for statehood, and Cypriots, who have lived on a divided island due to Turkish occupation, have no comparable UN bodies to advance their causes.”

Reflecting on what the new developments could mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ron Ben-Yishai suggests that “cutting aid to the Palestinians, cutting funding to UNRWA, and the Trump administration’s declaration that it does not recognize the Palestinian ‘right of return’, are all welcomed steps, because they will force the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other factions in the PLO to adopt a more practical view on a permanent resolution to the conflict. Perhaps these moves could even cause the Palestinians to recalculate their own steps and come back to the negotiating table with a paradigm that would be closer to something Israel would consider acceptable.”

But judging from this recent Gulf News editorial, nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, as the editorial points out, such unilateral and punitive measures are likely to harden Palestinian resolve, rather than weaken it: “increasingly, it appears that Washington is not really seeking to get the Palestinian leadership back to the table. It is, in fact, trying to help Israel normalize and even legalize the occupation and end the conflict on its own terms…. Jeopardizing the fate of UNRWA will only fuel radicalism and harm prospects of peace in the region. The Palestinians know their cause is just and have refused to take the Israeli occupation lying down. They have kept the flame of statehood alive. And any just solution to the Palestinian question now must also include the status of refugees.”

Unfortunately, by and large, rather than vigorously engaging with such developments, regional observers have been busy analyzing and dissecting the various facets of the intra-Palestinian power struggle, which has recently been fueled by Israel’s negotiations with Hamas, much to the dismay of the Palestinian Authority. According to Al Ahram’s Ahmed Eleiba, the PA insists that it is its right “as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, [to] sign the truce agreement with Israel. Sources say the Egyptian [reconciliation] paper is not the crux of the problem at present and differences over the reconciliation process focus on relatively minor details. The real problem is that tensions have begun to mount between the two sides and this is reflected in their political postures and in the rhetoric of their respective media…. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, insists that one of its integral functions is the conclusion of the reconciliation process, and that neither Hamas nor any other faction has the right to assume such a task independently.”

In an article written for the Jerusalem Post, Khaled Abu Toameh suggests that, for the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas, the truce between Hamas and Israel crosses several red lines: “The war of words between Hamas and its rivals in Fatah has intensified as Egyptian efforts to end the dispute between the two parties and achieve a truce between the Gaza-based factions and Israel appear to have hit a snag. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was quoted on Tuesday as having voiced strong opposition to the idea of establishing a seaport in Cyprus and an airport near Eilat as part of a truce agreement between Hamas and Israel. Abbas reportedly said that such a plan was ‘destructive to the Palestinian cause and would kill the Palestinian dream of establishing a Palestinian state’.”

However, some, including Jordan Times’s Osama Al Sharif, believe that Mr. Abbas must shoulder part of the blame for the current state of affairs: “He has been inconsistent and vague on inter-Palestinian reconciliation efforts, thus distancing his rivals and isolating his allies within the Palestinian national movement. While he has consolidated his power in recent months, he has failed to revive the Palestine Liberation Organization as the only platform that could bring the Palestinians together to confront Israeli and American actions. On the other hand, the White House and Israel’s right-wing government are misguided if they believe that political blackmail and economic punishment will force Abbas to accept a humiliating deal…. No Arab or Palestinian leadership, not to mention the international community, can ever accept a deal that rewards the aggressor and denies a nation under occupation its right to self-determination.”

Perhaps in an effort to retake the initiative, President Abbas met with a delegation of Israeli academics to discuss his aspirations for Palestinian statehood. Ma’an News staff reports that Mr. Abbas went so far as to tell the “delegation of Israeli academics that he is committed to achieving peace through a demilitarized state and agreed that security would be maintained by police forces and not military…. Abbas stressed ‘I want a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders without an army. I want policemen with sticks, not weapons. Instead of airplanes and tanks, setting up schools and hospitals, as well as allocating budgets and resources to social institutions is a priority’.”

President Abbas’s stance was also unexpectedly strengthened by the U.S. ambassador to Israel who, according to Times of Israel staff, “has reportedly criticized the nascent ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, saying that any agreement to rehabilitate Gaza that sidestepped the Palestinian Authority would be a ‘tremendous prize’ for the terror group…. The envoy clarified that this meant that ‘there should be ideally one (Palestinian) government … If you go around the PA and somehow try to restructure Gaza without them, you’re giving a tremendous prize to Hamas… with all the failings of the PA, if the choice is Hamas we pick the PA’.”

One of the related questions that some are asking concerns Israel’s motives for striking a deal with Hamas. In an article for the Daily Sabah, Ali Abo Rezeg suggests three possible explanations: “What prompted Israel to accept indirect talks with Hamas after nearly four years of relative peace on the border? Was it the weekly protests, known as the Great Return March, being held in the area near the Israeli security fence since March 30? Though perhaps not the only reason, the march seems to have turned the tide for talks, pushing Israel to negotiate to improve the situation in the blockaded Gaza Strip…. The second reason why Israel returned to the negotiation table was to take advantage of the failure of the Palestinian internal reconciliation process and to deepen the division between Palestinian rivals…. The third reason is related to the relative calm in the Syrian conflict…. By agreeing to negotiate with Hamas now, Israel has decided to neutralize Gaza’s southern military front to focus more on the north, particularly after Iranian officials threatened to respond to the new U.S. economic sanctions on Tehran.”

One can be sure, argues Christiane Waked in an op-ed for Khaleej Times, that the Israeli government is not interested in a long-term solution to the Palestinian question as long as it continues to act with impunity in the Occupied Territories and beyond: “While in 2009 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time accepted the principle of ‘two states for two peoples’, the government propaganda machine since then has made no reference to the creation of a Palestinian state. In the last decade, a new strategy has been implemented rather discreetly to thwart a two-state solution and the focus has shifted to the definitive separation of the secular West Bank and the Islamist Gaza strip. Backed by the US, this strategy is taking firm shape now. Washington’s recent decision to cancel more than $200 million worth of financial aid is more like a political blackmail to corner the Palestinians and force them into submission.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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