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Palestinian Refugees And The 'Right To Return'


The Trump administration announced that it was no longer going to give money to the United Nations program for Palestinian refugees. With that announcement came a major foreign policy shift. And now this week, the Trump administration has decided to close down the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, D.C. Through that program, the U.N. runs schools, clinics and other basic services for what it says is the world's oldest and maybe the largest official U.N. refugee population. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from a refugee camp in the West Bank.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: When Israel was founded 70 years ago, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes or were driven out. They ended up in refugee camps. Some are in neighboring countries. I went to one of the camps in the West Bank - Jalazone camp. It's like a crowded slum.

This is not what you might think of when you think of a refugee camp. You don't see any tents here. There used to be tents, 70 years ago. You see three, four - that's even a five-story building here.

Hassan Abu Sharifa walks me up the narrow building where he lives with about 60 relatives - children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It's been this way for decades, but he calls it temporary.

HASSAN ABU SHARIFA: (Through interpreter) Here in Jalazone is just a station until we return.

ESTRIN: Palestinian refugees demand the right of return. Abu Sharifa wants to go back to the village of Safriyeh that he fled as a baby. He's 73 years old now. His village was replaced decades ago by Israeli towns. But even his young granddaughter speaks of Safriyeh like it's home.

ESTRIN: Maya, where are you from?


ESTRIN: The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, runs schools and health clinics for Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. Israel accuses the UNRWA system of keeping refugees in limbo and delaying their permanent resettlement in the countries already hosting them. It blames Arab countries for keeping refugees in camps, so they'll be an ongoing issue for Israel. Former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor.

RON PROSOR: It puts in their heads this dream of the right of return - returning to something that will not happen because the numbers are such that it's a - it's a destruction of the state of Israel.

ESTRIN: But these people were displaced, even though it was a long time ago. The U.N. says there are 5.4 million registered Palestinian refugees, which includes a growing number of descendants. The Trump administration says it's unsustainable to provide for them all and has stopped funding UNRWA. Israeli officials hope that pressures the U.N. to trim its roster of Palestinian refugees, leading host countries like Jordan to permanently absorb millions. This would not solve the problem, says Anne Richard, the top U.S. official on refugee issues under the Obama administration.

ANNE RICHARD: You know, redefining a population of people does not make them disappear. It does not get rid of this group of people who have aspirations. UNRWA is mandated to provide services to them until a permanent political solution is found by the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I find the actions of the Trump administration not at all productive.

ESTRIN: Some Israeli defense officials are concerned the funding cut to the U.N. agency could worsen the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where the U.N. provides food, schools and jobs. The funding cut is the latest instance of the Trump administration siding with Israel in challenging key Palestinian demands, first, endorsing Israel's claims to the contested city of Jerusalem and now undercutting the U.N. program for Palestinian refugees. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.

KHALIL SHIKAKI: These steps make absolutely no sense for a mediator who seeks an agreement that brings two parties together in an honest manner. But it makes sense for someone like this administration, who essentially decided they will ignore the Palestinian position completely - not just ignore it, but actually weaken it as much as possible and give the Israelis what they want.

ESTRIN: Shikaki's recent poll suggests half of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza could actually agree with Israel on compromises for refugees. I also found split attitudes talking to two refugees on the street, Awoni Dhaher and Hussein al Ayyan.

ESTRIN: Do you think maybe some people would take money instead of going back?

AWONI DHAHER: I think it is one of the situations, yeah, one.

HUSSEIN AL AYYAN: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: No, no, no - no compensation, Al Ayyan said, only return.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jalazone refugee camp in the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.