Seventy-two years ago, in May 1948, over 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or forced to flee from their homes when Israel was established.
Today there are currently more than 5.6 million Palestinian refugees, those born in Palestine and their descendants. The majority live in harsh conditions in overcrowded camps run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.
Over seven decades, the situation of the Palestinian refugees and UNRWA have become inseparable. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the global economic recession, and UNRWA's weak financial position, the agency and the Palestinian refugees it serves face another catastrophe.
On 1 May 1950, UNRWA began providing health, education and relief services to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. Last December, UNRWA's mandate was extended until 2023 over Washington's objections. However, its position has never been weaker.
UNRWA has faced a declining budget for years and this situation was exacerbated by the Trump administration's decision to end US funding for the agency. Since the agency was created, the United States has been its largest donor and provided $6.15 billion over 67 years. By 2018, Washington donated $360 million annually to UNRWA. After the cuts, however, UNRWA faced a historic deficit that severely weakened its services and programmes.
Washington's antagonism towards UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees did not begin with the Trump administration. Indeed, it is part of the broader alignment between the United States and Israel that seeks to deny Palestinians their rights dating back to the Nakba. Yet the refugees are the key to any resolution between Israel and the Palestinians.
In late 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution No. 194, which stipulated that any refugees wishing to return to their homes should be allowed to do so and receive compensation for any losses. But Israel has actively worked to prevent their return of the Palestinian refugees in several ways.
Since 1950, Israeli law has prevented the return of Palestinian refugees. This has been coupled with intransigence in negotiations on the refugee issue. Israel has also undermined UNRWA and sought the agency's elimination in order to erase the refugees.
Seven years ago, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the influential pro-Israel lobbying organisation in the United States attempted to work with allies in the US Congress to force UNRWA to redefine "refugees".