Soon after the establishment of UNRWA, the US decided to aid the rehabilitation of Jewish refugees from Arab countries in Israel. What transpired is the story of the entire conflict.
The US decision to withdraw its support for UNRWA raises the possibility that other countries will follow suit, and this organization will come to its end. These circumstances call for a retrospective look at the period of UNRWA’s establishment. As so happens, alongside UNRWA, which was intended to help rehabilitate the Palestinian refugees after the war, the United States transferred funds for a parallel project to aid Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
This chapter of Israel’s history is forgotten for a simple reason – it succeeded. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries were assimilated into Israel. In contrast, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees were rejected by the countries that were supposed to absorb them, in a cynical move designed to perpetuate the Arab-Israeli conflict in conditions where other conflicts have long since been resolved.
In their book “The War of Return“, Adi Schwartz and Dr. Einat Wilf deal with the establishment of the organization and with the US administration’s involvement in its establishment. However, when the lens is slightly widened, one discovers that alongside the establishment of UNRWA, there was a large-scale move by the American administration taking place to rehabilitate refugees and countries in the years following World War II. UNRWA and the aid for Jewish refugees from Arab countries were supposed to be part of this process.
In Marshall’s Footsteps
George Marshall was US Secretary of State under the administration of President Harry Truman. Truman entrusted him with the task of leading the world’s recovery after the horrors of WWII. Marshall played a crucial role in the European reconstruction: under his guidance and instruction, the United States transferred about $12 billion – about $120 billion in contemporary value – towards the rehabilitation of devastated Europe.
The funds were used mainly for loans to industrial plants and for the purchase of goods from the United States, but some were also allocated for the rehabilitation and assimilation of refugee populations. Thus, for example, a billion dollars were invested in the settling in Germany of Germans exiled from the Sudetenland. The program succeeded beyond all expectation, and the economic prosperity in Germany and Austria, for example, was dubbed the “economic miracle.”
Refugee vs. Refugee
Yeshayahu (Si) Kennan was the spokesman for the Israeli delegation to the UN during the Marshall Plan. Kennan’s boss, Ambassador Abba Eban, rejected his proposal to demand from the American administration a parallel plan in the Middle East, arguing that the Arabs would use the money they received against Israel. Kennan then joined the American Zionist Council (AZC) and in this framework began to lobby for the implementation of a similar program in the Middle East. At that time there were about 1.6 million refugees and displaced persons in the Middle East – half of them Jews and half Arabs. Kennan’s desire was for the countries to use grants to rehabilitate the refugees in the countries they came to after the war.
Encouraged by the success of the Marshall Plan in Europe, the Americans sought to rehabilitate the Middle East by the same means. The Truman administration’s support for the establishment of the State of Israel (in contrary to Marshall’s position) created a sense of responsibility among the administration for the consequences of the declaration of independence and the War of Independence.
Against this backdrop, Kennan’s initiative found a sympathetic ear in Congress and the State Department. 164 members of Congress signed a proposal to carry out the initiative, and in response the Arab countries began to exert counter-pressure. Kennan then harnessed leading economists to persuade Congress that aid to Israel was good not only for Israel but also for the United States.
In September 1951, nearly two years after the establishment of UNRWA, Kennan’s efforts bore fruit: Congress approved $160 million in aid to rehabilitate the region: $68 million was granted to Israel, and the rest were distributed between Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.
The Story of the Whole Conflict
The manner in which these funds were distributed is one of those specific cases that in miniature, tell the story of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict: The young State of Israel invested these funds, which came several years ahead of reparations from Germany, in housing development and infrastructure, and in the tremendous effort to absorb the Jews who were escaping en-masse from Arab countries. In this way, Israel acted similarly to the European countries’ handling of the American aid funds that came from the Marshall Plan.
On the other hand, the Arab states allowed these funds to be swallowed up within UNRWA’s overall budget, or perhaps just kept it for themselves. Schwartz and Wilf’s book describes the mechanism used by the Arabs against the American administration: they allowed UNRWA to provide humanitarian aid to refugees and agreed in principle to huge projects for infrastructure construction that would advance their countries alongside the rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugees. In practice, the Arab governments were dragging their feet and preventing reconstruction from happening. The motive was to leverage the plight of the refugees as a means of delegitimizing the State of Israel. In retrospect, then, it appears that Abba Eban was right in opposing the plan.
The UNRWA monster has become a petri dish in which anomalies have multiplied as far as the treatment of refugees goes: Palestinian refugee status is inherited, UNRWA itself is not working to rehabilitate the refugees but only involved in humanitarian aid, and a large majority of its workers are Palestinians themselves. UNRWA has become a decisive factor in perpetuating the Arab-Israeli conflict, rather than in solving it.
In April 2008, a month before Israel’s 60th Independence Day, there were first signs of an American awakening: in the face of the “unquestionable rights” of the Palestinians, Congress decided to grant identical rights to the Jewish refugees who fled Arab countries. Congress instructed the president to determine that the rehabilitation of the refugees in their places is the way to solve the problem of the conflict in the Middle East, and the “refugees” refers to people who fled all Middle Eastern countries during the 1948 war.
The Trump administration’s decision to cease funding for UNRWA looks like closing a circle. Time will tell whether the move will succeed, but if this is indeed the case, it can be assumed that this is a significant step towards quelling the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
*(Translated from Mida.org.il Hebrew)
Kobby Barda is a historian of the US-Israel relations.