Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, has been pushing to remove the refugee status of millions of Palestinians as part of an apparent effort to shutter the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, a report on Friday said.
Under Trump, the US has frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, with the US president linking the decision to the Palestinians’ refusal to speak with his administration after he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
According to emails published Friday by Foreign Policy magazine, Kushner has been highly critical of UNRWA, with he and other White House officials weighing its closure as part of their peace efforts.
“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” Kushner wrote in an email dated January 11, just days before the US froze $65 million in funding for UNRWA. “This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”
“Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are… Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there,” he added in the email, according to Foreign Policy.
Uniquely, UNRWA grants refugee status to all descendants of Palestinians who left or fled Israel with the establishment of the state in 1948, swelling the number to an estimated five million at present, when the number of actual refugees from that conflict is estimated to be in the low tens of thousands. In peace talks, the Palestinian leadership has always demanded a “right of return” to Israel for these millions — an influx that, if accepted by Israel, would spell the end of the Israel as a majority Jewish state.
Israel argues that the Palestinian demand is an UNRWA-facilitated effort to destroy Israel by demographic means. The Palestinians also seek an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Months of ongoing violent protests fueled by Hamas at the Gaza border with Israel were initiated under the banner of a “March of the Return,” and encouraged by Hamas leaders with the declared ultimate goal of erasing the border and destroying Israel.
Israel argues that an independent Palestinian state, if agreed upon in negotiations, would absorb Palestinian refugees and their descendants, just as Israel absorbed Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern and north African countries over the decades.
In an email from later in January, an adviser to Jason Greenblatt — Trump’s Middle East peace envoy — suggested UNRWA’s closure as part of the US peace push.
“UNRWA should come up with a plan to unwind itself and become part of the UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] by the time its charter comes up again in 2019,” wrote Victoria Coates.
Coates described the proposition as one of the “spitball ideas that I’ve had that are also informed by some thoughts I’ve picked up from Jared, Jason and Nikki,” referring to Haley, the US ambassador to the UN.
Other proposals raised were moving UNRWA to a monthly operating budget and coming up with “a plan to remove all anti-Semitism from educational materials.”
The report also quoted Palestinian officials saying Kushner and Greenblatt in June asked Jordan to remove the refugee status of some 2 million Palestinians in order to end UNRWA’s operations in the country.
“[Kushner said] the resettlement has to take place in the host countries and these governments can do the job that UNRWA was doing,” said Palestinian Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi, according to Foreign Policy.
“They want to take a really irresponsible, dangerous decision and the whole region will suffer,” she added, claiming the White House wanted Gulf states to pick up the tab for whatever this would cost Jordan.
Shortly after the reported request, top Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Kushner and Greenblatt of seeking the “termination” of the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency.
“They want to terminate the role of UNRWA by proposing direct aid to the countries hosting the Palestinian refugees and sideline the UN agency,” Erekat said at the time. “On top of this, they are planning financial aid to the Gaza Strip worth one billion dollars for projects, also separate from UNRWA and under the title of solving a humanitarian crisis.”
He added: “All this is actually aimed at liquidating the issue of the Palestinian refugees.”
The White House would not directly comment on the Foreign Policy report, though an official told the magazine that the US position on UNRWA “has been under frequent evaluation and internal discussion. The administration will announce its policy in due course.”
Israel, which has also sometimes accused UNRWA of employing Palestinians who support terrorism, says UNRWA’s definition of Palestinian refugees helps to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israeli illegitimacy. It notes that UNRWA’s policy of granting refugee status to the descendants of Palestinian refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, does not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year, even as other refugee populations in the world shrink with each passing generation.
A spokesman for the Israel Embassy in Washington, Elad Strohmayer, told Foreign Policy: “We believe that UNRWA needs to pass from the world as it is an organization that advocates politically against Israel and perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem.”
The Foreign Policy report came as US officials say the Trump administration is staffing up a Middle East policy team at the White House in anticipation of unveiling its long awaited but largely mysterious Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
The National Security Council last week began approaching other agencies seeking volunteers to join the team, which will work for peace pointmen Kushner and Greenblatt, according to the officials.
The creation of a White House team is the first evidence in months that a plan is advancing. Although Trump officials have long promised the most comprehensive package ever put forward toward resolving the conflict, the emerging plan has not been described with even a small amount of detail by Kushner, Greenblatt or any other official.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.