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 use 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.
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!
As a result of these concerns, in the eyes of Palestinian refugees, Trump’s upcoming plan has died before it was born.
This brings us to the issue of UNRWA. Although it has been subject to many attacks from Israel and its friends in the US, UNRWA’s position is still strong. Nearly every year, we witness an attempt by some pro-Israel forces in the US Congress to target UNRWA either for ‘corruption’ and ‘mismanagement’ or sometimes for ‘harbouring terrorists’ and teaching ‘militant conflict’ to the Palestinian children. However, the American financial support for the agency is still continuing. Since its inception, the US has been the biggest donor to UNRWA and in 2017 it donated around $368 million to the agency.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘What will the Trump era bring for Palestinian refugees’.