Washington defunding the Palestinian refugee agency is not merely an attack on UNRWA, as serious as that may be. It is an attempt to destroy the Palestinian national movement.
Trump has steered his policy on Israel-Palestine down a clear path. He is motivated by the right-wing belief, undoubtedly held by Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman — Trump’s “Mideast peace team” — that contrary to conventional wisdom, the Palestinians can be pounded into submission.
Late last month, the State Department announced it would end all funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides many essential services for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The reaction to this decision has been mostly negative.
Some have objected to the Trump administration’s decision because it runs counter to U.S. interests. Some have objected because it jeopardizes Israel’s security. Others talk about the staggering humanitarian consequences for the millions of refugees UNRWA serves.
These are all important concerns. But none of them hits the mark of what the Trump administration — apparently at the urging of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without any consultation with anyone else in the Israeli government or defense establishment — is doing. This is not merely an attack on UNRWA, as serious as that may be. This is an attempt to destroy the Palestinian national movement.
As I have long argued, the biggest single issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948 is not Jerusalem, settlements, borders, or even security. It is the Palestinian right of return. It is the one issue Israel would not discuss in talks and Israelis, with very few exceptions mostly on the far left, will not even consider compromising on.
It is also the very basis of the Palestinian national movement since 1948. For seven decades, the Palestinian right of return has been the irresistible force meeting the immovable object of Israeli nationalism. It has been the time bomb that would explode if talks on all those other issues were ever successful.