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opinion

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

The abrupt decision by the Trump administration to end all financial support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) – a UN agency that provides humanitarian aid to Palestinians – is a blunder. It will hurt a weak and frustrated community, will sow further seeds of hatred and anger and will diminish the United States’s ability to make peace in the Middle East. The move, and the publicity around it, has not only renewed awareness of the rights of Palestinian refugees but appears to have had an opposite effect on many countries, including Western ones, that are stepping up and increasing funding to the international agency.

While the Palestinian refugee issue was one of the seven “permanent status” issues the Oslo Accords had delayed resolving, it was not a game-changer. In 2002, at the Arab League summit in Beirut, the Arab states approved a landmark peace initiative that called for – among other issues – the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has assured Israeli peace activists that he has no intention of returning to his birth town of Safed, now in Israel, and that Palestinians don’t wish to “flood Israel” with refugees. Negotiations in Taba, Egypt, during the last days of Israel’s Ehud Barak administration in 2001 had reached middle-ground understanding on the implementation of the right-of-return issue.

Washington’s decision to abruptly defund UNRWA has done the opposite. Instead of making Palestinians forget about their right of return, the action has invigorated Palestinians and has hardened their positions.

Disqualifying refugee descendants goes against the normal practice and definition of refugees, including that of Palestinian refugees as stated in the mandate given to UNRWA. It is also ironic that people who call for rights of descendants after 2,000 years want to deny this right to the relatively recent Palestinian refugees.

American efforts both on the Jerusalem embassy issue and on stopping aid earmarked for Palestinian refugees does little to advance the peace process. Such efforts merely harden positions and disqualify the United States from its role as an honest broker. With other countries picking up the aid funding to UNRWA, the Trump administration also loses an important leveraging tool.

Washington’s chaotic and haphazard moves have resulted in a total boycott by Palestinian leaders from meeting or engaging with American officials. Without the involvement of Palestinian leaders, and surely without the Palestinian people (many of whom are refugees who will suffer from the cut in aid), it is impossible to understand what the American strategy will be to move the peace process forward.

One explanation can be seen in the communication between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Washington. According to Israeli media, Mr. Netanyahu called on the United States to cut aid to UNRWA without consulting his own cabinet or security officials. Israel’s military brass has repeatedly and publicly praised UNRWA, which it felt has had a soothing effect in volatile locations such as Gaza. Israeli army officials are worried that Hamas will fill any gaps that will be created if UNRWA vacates the scene. Mr. Netanyahu, who is eyeing the coming Israeli elections in 2019 and, along with his family, is embroiled in corruption allegations, is interested in short-term publicity gains even at the cost of long-term disasters. The sad thing is that the Trump administration now says it will delay announcing its “ultimate deal” peace plan till possibly after the Israeli elections, which appears to be playing along with Mr. Netanyahu’s personal political ambitions.

Cutting U.S. aid to a UN agency headed by a Swiss commissioner which provides education, health and social services to Palestinian refugees is not a formula for peace nor does it reflect American values. The sane policy would be to reverse this blunder and begin talking in earnest with Palestinians about ways to advance peace on the basis of internationally accepted parameters.