In Gaza, calm has returned after rocket fire between Palestinian militants and Israel in early May killed over two dozen people, marking the deadliest outbreak of violence since a 2014 war. Desperately needed Qatari aid has begun flowing to the isolated coastal strip of territory ruled by Hamas, although everyday Gazans continue to struggle.
In Israel, the clashes largely faded from the headlines as Tel Aviv hosted the Eurovision song contest, although for those in Jewish settlements near Gaza, tensions remain high as the possibility of Palestinian protests at the border or renewed rocket fire pose constant threats.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the Fatah-led government has maintained a relatively stable security relationship with Israel. But the aging leadership has failed to reconcile with its political rival, Hamas, and U.S. aid cuts have taken a heavy economic toll on Palestinians there as well, potentially leading to another combustible situation.
But elsewhere, a very different slow-moving humanitarian crisis is brewing — one that hasn’t received as much attention but has wrought just as much misery for Palestinians.
Some 20 kilometers north of Jordan’s capital, Amman, lies a 1.4 square-kilometer block of land that was once little more than a fold in the hills but is now home to 119,000 people.
This jumble of ramshackle buildings and narrow, mostly unsurfaced streets make up Baqa’a, the largest refugee camp in Jordan.
Here, a sign on a traffic circle on the way in from Amman reads “#❤BAQAA,” yet there seems to be little love for this overcrowded and impoverished place.
Starting in 1968 as a field of 5,000 tents for Palestinians who left Gaza and the West Bank after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Baqa’a quickly evolved into rows of prefabricated shelters, then into gimcrack ash block and concrete houses as the years — and then decades — rolled by.
Today, this is home to an intergenerational refugee and political crisis that has dragged on for more than seven decades.
“I was born in 1957 in a Palestinian refugee camp on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah,” said lawyer and Baqa’a political kingpin Khalid Arar. “In 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, we came here. I have seven daughters and two sons and 19 grandchildren. So, four generations now, from my parents to my grandchildren, all born in camps, all refugees.”
All of these generations, too, went to school, had their health checked and gave birth in institutions run by a single international organization: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
UNRWA’s Role in Mideast Peace
Set up in 1949 to help the generation of Palestinian refugees to which Arar’s parents belonged, UNRWA continues to be responsible for education, health, social and other municipal services in Baqa’a and dozens of other camps like it across the region. In total, it assists some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees with voluntary funds from U.N. member states.
Yet, in a controversial move last August, President Trump announced that he was ending U.S. funding for UNRWA — a cut of some $360 million a year, or 25 percent to 30 percent of the agency’s total budget. (The president also cut other forms of aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.)
The administration called UNRWA an “irredeemably flawed operation” and criticized other member states for not sharing more of the financial burden. Trump tweeted that the U.S. has given billions of dollars to the Palestinians but receives “no appreciate or respect” from them, arguing that they are “no longer willing to talk peace.”
Critics countered that the move would in fact derail peace efforts and spark a humanitarian crisis that could lead to radicalization in the refugee camps. Even some officials in Israel worried that the drastic cuts could potentially destabilize the region and leave Israel on the hook for caring for Palestinians in the event of a total collapse in services.
While predications of a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe did not come to pass, nearly a year later, the effects of those cuts are nevertheless strikingly clear in downtown Baqa’a.
The U.S. budget cuts slashed the camp’s rubbish collectors from 180 to 60, leaving piles of garbage uncollected. A freeze on new recruitment and a switch to temporary employment contracts have meant that the camp’s solitary health center has lost a quarter of its staff. Teachers who leave are also not replaced, meaning class sizes in UNRWA schools have jumped, while equipment and facilities are scarce.
Yet the effect of the cuts is not only felt in the camp’s physical infrastructure, but also in the minds of many of its inhabitants.
“UNRWA is our hope,” said Bashar Azzeh, a manager at the camp’s center for the disabled. “While it is here, the Palestinians have hope that they will one day get justice. If you get rid of it, what then? What hope is there?”
The question of justice is why UNRWA is far more than just a relief organization to many Palestinians. To its detractors, however, that’s exactly why UNRWA is an impediment to peace.
U.N.-registered refugees maintain an internationally recognized “right of return” to the homes and lands from which they were expelled — a central issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But according to the U.N., this definition includes the descendants of refugees, meaning that the number of Palestinians eligible to return to their land if peace is ever achieved continues to multiply.
For Israel, the prospect of absorbing millions of Palestinian refugees would amount to a demographic disaster for the Jewish-majority nation of 8.7 million. The Trump administration wants to dramatically reduce the number of refugees eligible to return to Israel in the hopes of resolving one of the core disputes in the long-stalled Mideast peace talks, even though most Palestinians consider the so-called right of return an inalienable right.
Politics also may have played a role in the administration’s decision to financially squeeze UNRWA and the Fatah-led government in the West Bank. Trump likely hopes the cuts will force Palestinians to the negotiating table when he unveils his long-awaited “deal of the century” to resolve one of the most intractable conflicts in the world.
Trump’s Vision of Peace
Reports speculate that Trump’s Mideast peace plan — engineered by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — will focus heavily on security for Israel, the status of Jerusalem and economic development for Palestinians, while skirting around the long-envisioned two-state solution that Palestinians have pinned their hopes on for 70 years.
Kushner has said the plan will be a realistic starting point to potentially break the stalemate in peace talks and help Palestinians “start living a better life.”
But that promise may not be enough to win over frustrated Palestinians, who no longer see the administration as an honest broker given Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and his chummy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently won re-election with the support of hardline far-right parties that continue to push for the annexation of Jewish settlements.
It also remains to be seen how the plan will go over among America’s Arab allies. That includes Jordan, which is now home to around 40 percent of all those who currently qualify as Palestinian refugees. On the one hand, The Washington Post and other outlets have reported that under Trump’s peace plan, Jordan (and Egypt) could receive billions of dollars more in aid, alongside the Palestinians inside Israel. But that would still leave Jordan with the question of what to do with the Palestinians inside its own borders — refugees who, absent a comprehensive peace plan, could become a permanent fixture in Jordan with no hope of ever leaving.
Most of these refugees are the descendants of people who fled across the Jordan River into the kingdom following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Because this territory had been annexed by Jordan in 1950, the majority of these refugees and their descendants have Jordanian citizenship. But there is also a minority who do not because they fled to Jordan from areas that have never been “Jordanian territory,” such as the Gaza Strip and other former Arab towns and villages in what is now Israel.
Both types of refugees qualify for UNRWA services, however. A complicated local governance structure exists in places like Baqa’a, with a local committee under the Jordanian government’s Department of Palestinian Affairs (DPA) responsible for some services, while UNRWA runs education, health and social welfare programs and garbage collection.
This structure arose out of the camp’s origins as an emergency response to the sudden arrival of refugees back in 1967 and 1968. It followed the structure also in place at camps that UNRWA had been running elsewhere since 1948, when the first mass displacement of Palestinians occurred with the creation of the state of Israel.
An Outdated Present?
The question for many now is whether this “temporary” structure is still relevant today.
“UNRWA was set up in response to the 1948 war,” said Dave Harden, managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and a former USAID assistant administrator active in Israeli-Palestinian issues. “It’s big, expensive, has a lot of employees and is clunky, as clearly it wasn’t envisaged to be still going after 70 years.”
Since the start of the Trump administration, criticism of the agency has risen in volume in Washington, too, with Kushner leading the charge.
“This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace,” he wrote in emails revealed by Foreign Policy magazine in January 2018, just before an initial freezing of U.S. funds. It was a line Kushner repeated when finally cutting that funding altogether last August.
UNRWA has long been dogged by criticism that it perpetuates an anti-Israel agenda. This includes longstanding allegations that its facilities were used by Hamas to store weapons and its funds were diverted to the terrorist group. Critics also charge that UNRWA schools use materials that delegitimize Israel and that its employees have praised martyrdom and violence against Jews.
Criticism of UNRWA also centers around the fact that refugee status is inherited, swelling the numbers of those who qualify. While in 1948, the number of Palestinian refugees was around 750,000, it now stands at over 5 million, according to the agency. Today, the vast majority are descendants of those who were displaced by the 1948 war. In many cases, this includes third-generation Jordanian citizens who are still considered Palestinian refugees.
In the corridor of an UNRWA boys’ school in Baqa’a, the dilemma of who has the “right of return” to Israel — one of the main sticking points in peace talks for decades — is abundantly clear.
In a large picture frame, there is a drawing of a key, along with a map.
“Home,” says Arar, pointing at the picture. “All of us still have the keys to the homes our families were forced to leave, all those years ago. One day, we will return. I don’t know how, but we will.”
For Israelis, however, the prospect of resettling millions of Palestinians within their nation’s narrow boundaries is simply “a nonstarter,” said Harden. Yet UNRWA’s existence continues to perpetuate the refugee status of these people, along with their right to go home. In doing so, Kushner argues that UNRWA is giving millions of Palestinians false hope that they will one day be able to reclaim land in Israel, while at the same time fostering a culture of dependency in the refugee camps.
In a way, Harden says that through UNWRA, “the international community has been subsidizing the dysfunctionality of Israeli-Palestinian relations. If the Israelis and Palestinians had to face this, they might make different decisions.”
Brett Schaefer and James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation agree, arguing that Trump made a bold move in breaking with decades-long U.S. policy to sustain UNRWA.
“Continuing the status quo will only ensure that UNRWA and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue their current dissatisfactory trajectories,” they wrote in a September 2018 brief for the think tank. “Although it will likely cause short-term ramifications, the decision to defund this agency will, hopefully, force all parties to reevaluate their underlying assumptions and refocus attention on what is necessary to end this protracted dispute.”
Yet these arguments fail to convince supporters of UNRWA. The criticism of passing down refugee status to descendants is based on “a faulty assumption that UNRWA is the only U.N. agency that allows this,” said Ghaith Al-Omari, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “UNHCR does this too, for example,” he said, referring to the U.N. agency for refugees. “The other faulty assumption is a mistaken understanding of what UNRWA can and cannot do. This [refugee status] is not a definition set by UNRWA, but by the U.N. General Assembly.”
At the same time, while acknowledging that UNRWA was created for an emergency that took place decades ago, for many, that is still an accurate description of the world around them today.
“The emergency still exists for us,” said Younis Al-Hawi, a retired professor and a Baqa’a resident. “We are still refugees, still people who were forcibly turned out of our homes and are determined to get them back.”
UNRWA also strenuously denies U.S. allegations that it is corrupt and inefficient.
“Over 65 years, U.S. governments have been the major supporters of UNRWA,” Amjad Obaid, UNRWA’s acting field public relations officer in Amman, pointed out. “The U.S. government has consistently commended UNRWA’s high impact, transparency and accountability, with this reiterated during the UNRWA commissioner-general’s visit to Washington in November 2017.”
In Baqa’a, and in Jordan more generally, the U.S. move is thus often seen not as part of an effort to reform the way Palestinian refugees are handled, but more as an attempt to eliminate them altogether.
“They simply want to get rid of us,” Azzeh said. “The U.S. thinks that if they abolish UNRWA, they can abolish our status as refugees and therefore our right to return.”
This right to return is also vital for the Jordanian government, as it maintains an often uneasy relationship with the Palestinians — one that in the past has erupted into violence. If the Palestinians are no longer a “temporary” population, then this poses major demographic and political challenges for Jordan’s rulers, who rely on the support of East Bank Jordanians, many of whom fear becoming a minority if the Palestinians become permanent.
“There seems to be very little appreciation of the unintended consequences for other actors,” said Al-Omari, “particularly Jordan, a key U.S. ally that is very sensitive to the refugee issue.”
Meanwhile, in Baqa’a itself, there is a growing sense of despair.
As one doctor in the camp health center, who spoke on condition of anonymity, put it: “I don’t know what they expect us to do. We were 42 staff here; now we are 30 following the cuts. We have to see 900 patients a day and we have only very basic medicines and equipment. Public health is deteriorating because of the uncollected garbage and because the camp in any case is in a terrible condition. Where are we supposed to go from here? That’s what they don’t say.”
About the Author
Jonathan Gorvett (jpgorvett.com) is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in Near and Middle Eastern affairs