When the US administration announced in January that it will be withholding $65m out of a $125m aid package earmarked for UNRWA, millions of registered Palestinian refugees living in the occupied territories, Lebanon and Jordan were understandably alarmed. The refugees were not disturbed by the decision only because the budget cut was undoubtedly going to make their living conditions worse. They were concerned because it signaled what US President Donald Trump’s infamous “Deal of the Century” would mean for their future.
Today, as we approach the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the US policy on Palestinian refugees seems to be becoming more visibly pro-Israel, and Washington’s support for the refugees’ right of return seems to be nonexistent.
But is Trump really doing something significantly different from his predecessors? Is UNRWA really facing an existential threat? To be able to answer these questions, we need to look back at how US policy on Palestinian refugees evolved over the years.
From Truman to Obama
From President Truman to President Obama, the US policy on Palestinian refugees changed dramatically. Throughout his tenure as president, Harry S Truman tried hard to convince Israel to accept the return of two hundred thousand Palestinian refugees to their homeland. He wrote a letter to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on the issue; and also instructed Mark Ethridge, the US member of the Palestine Conciliation Commission in Lausanne Conference of 1949, to pressure Israel to accept the return of the refugees. Israel did not back down on the issue, and eventually Truman was forced to abandon this proposal.
When Barack Obama moved in to the White House decades later in 2008, the US position on the issue was significantly different. Unlike Truman, Obama argued that the Palestinian refugees should return not to Israel but to a future Palestinian state, if and when it is established.
US policy on the issue of Palestinian refugees came closer to the Israeli position over the years. To this day, Israel argues that the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees only began when the Arab countries launched a war to stop the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and lost it. Therefore, it claims that the Arab states, and not Israel, hold the responsibility for the exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their land. The US also repudiates any responsibility for this tragedy, despite its heavy involvement in the creation of the State of Israel. And currently, it openly sides with Israel on the issue of Palestinian refugees.
But the US did not always accept the Israeli version of events. In December 1948, as the tragedy unfolded and the refugee problem started to overwhelm the hosting countries, the UN general assembly passed Resolution 194, stating that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date”. The US was among those who voted for this resolution. Furthermore, in December 1949 the US also voted for the resolution 302(IV) which established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The main task for this agency was to provide employment, development and direct relief. Yet, over the years the role of UNRWA became even more significant. Today the agency provides healthcare, education and social services for the masses of Palestinian refugees scattered in the occupied territories and Arab countries.
Resettling refugees in Arab states
In 1950s and 60s, while the refugee issue was still relatively fresh, the US wanted to solve the problem by resettling Palestinian refugees in neighbouring Arab States or outside the Middle East. Back then, Washington also believed that a limited number of refugees, when possible, should be sent back to the lands they originally came from. To make this happen, the US continued its support for the UNRWA and pushed for the economic development of the countries that were hosting refugees. This policy was clear in the Johnston Plan in 1952, the Dulles Project in 1955, the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957, Lyndon Johnson’s speech in the UN in 1967 and other successive initiatives.
In the 70s and 80s, US administrations started to used vague language while talking about the future of the refugees, simply saying “a just solution” is necessary. They stopped referring to the relevant UN resolutions and pressuring Israel to take an active role in the solution of this problem. Eventually the US administrations of this era stopped talking about this issue completely, arguing that it will resolve itself naturally when a settlement is reached in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the 90s and 00s, Washington’s pro-Israeli stance on this issue became even more clear. During Bill Clinton’s presidency the US chose not to vote for the annual renewal of Resolution 194 for the first time, and later voted against the renewal of the resolution, claiming that the issue should be resolved as part of the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and there is no need for such dated resolutions. When George Bush took over the presidency, he called for an “agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem. His use of the terms “agreed” and “realistic” scared many refugees, as they knew that Israel does not agree on the return of any Palestinian and consider this an unrealistic and impractical solution.
The Trump era
Today, Trump’s attitude towards the Palestinian refugees is nothing but a continuation of the increasingly more pro-Israel policies implemented by previous administrations. The US still recognises Israel as a Jewish state and it is demanding the Palestinians to also recognise it such. In this context, it is unrealistic for the US to fight for the refugees’ right to return to their homelands. The last three American Presidents – Clinton, Bush and Obama – already stated that the long-lasting solution to the Palestinian refugee problem will be their settlement in the future state of Palestine, not Israel. Several US media outlets recently reported that in his upcoming peace plan, Trump won’t even mention a “fair” and “just” resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
For President Trump, the way has been paved on this issue and he does not need to devise a new policy. All he needs to do is to follow the steps of his predecessors and continue with the same approach of denying the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. Trump may go one step further and say this out loud – something his predecessors chose not to do. In case that happens, would it lead to a big outcry among the Palestinian refugees? Certainly yes. But would that change a lot on the ground? Doubtful!