THE DEFUNDING OF the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) by the Trump administration, involving the loss of a third of its budget of about $1.1 billion, has provoked little response in the United States and some other parts of the world. There appears to be minimal concern in the US media and among American politicians for the fate of the over 700,000 Palestinians and their descendants who were made refugees in the ethnic cleansing campaign that produced a large Jewish majority in the state of Israel in 1948. This refugee population has benefited from the Agency’s educational, health and other facilities since soon after this nakba, or catastrophe, befell the Palestinian people. All of these vital services are currently jeopardized as a result, as is the security and stability of the countries that host these populations, notably Jordan and Lebanon, which are now hosting additional Palestine refugees who fled the war in Syria.
Given this general lack of concern, there has been insufficient attention to the fact that this decision is an integral part of the Trump administration’s wholesale adoption of the most extreme Israeli positions. Indeed, it has been attacking Palestinian refugees on an even more fundamental level than their material conditions. Administration spokespersons, such as the former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, as well as the President’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, have argued that UNRWA has adopted a flawed legal basis for defining Palestinian refugees. In their version of reality, the only “real” Palestinian refugees are those few remaining individuals who actually fled Palestine in 1948. They argue as well that Palestinians who have acquired Jordanian citizenship should not be considered refugees, while the Palestinians’ right of return, enshrined in UN General Assembly resolution 181 of 1949, should be abrogated.
The Trump administration has already abandoned the decades-old position of the US government by unilaterally deciding in Israel’s favor one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict over Palestine — that of Jerusalem — by moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and declaring the question of Jerusalem to be “off the table.” It is now apparently in the process of doing much the same thing with a second one, that of refugees.
The issue of the expulsion of the Palestinians, their right to return to their homes, and to compensation for their losses, has in many ways been the core of the question of Palestine refugees since 1948, when the dispossession of the Palestinian people was consummated. Since then, there have been various brazen attempts to dodge this issue or ignore its salience by denying that the Palestinians exist, ranging from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s notorious declaration to this effect in 1969, to the current Trump administration’s effort to define away the reality of the Palestinian refugees through legal sleight of hand.
In these circumstances, the Institute for Palestine Studies is pleased to present this timely monograph by Francesca Albanese, which marshals various legal arguments to show the baselessness of the claims made by the Trump administration regarding UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees. Albanese shows that the legal basis for UNRWA’s definition of refugees, including their descendants, is precisely the same as that employed by the UN High Commission for Refugees with every single other major refugee population. She thereby demonstrates that the arguments employed by US spokespersons have no legal basis, and are no more than political posturing to achieve the administration’s political aim of making the Palestinians disappear.