Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s reported plan to end refugee status for Palestinians reminds me of a 1970s Indian attempt to end slum conditions for the poor.
In an effort to abolish poverty, the headstrong son of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided just to abolish the poor instead.
Mr Kushner’s methodology seems to be much the same with respect to the Palestinians, but more about that later.
First, to India. It was the period that Indians call “Emergency rule”. Mrs Gandhi’s government had assumed extraordinary executive powers that limited people’s rights. In almost exactly the way that entitled members of President Trump’s family are meddling in governance, Mrs Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay assumed a prominent role in government policies. One of these was a plan to cleanse the capital Delhi of slums, and in theory, to improve the slum-dwellers’ lot by taking them out of their mean housing.
In 1976, Sanjay Gandhi launched a demolition drive, complete with 15 bulldozers in Delhi’s Turkman Gate area, which was mainly populated by poor Muslims. Many of the residents refused to move. Police opened fire on those who were resisting and several people died. Though there is no official account of the numbers killed, nor how many were displaced, Emma Tarlo’s book ‘Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi’ says: “Within a mere 21 months, an estimated 70,000 people were displaced from slums and commercial properties in large areas of old Delhi.”
All of this suffering came from the attempt to achieve Sanjay Gandhi’s hubristic, cynical and sadistic plan – to clear everything (houses, shanties and people) that impeded the view from Jama Masjid in old Delhi to Connaught Place in new Delhi.
So to Jared Kushner’s reported plan for the Palestinians. He seems to want to end the Palestinian problem by ending all recognition that there is a problem.
Foreign Policy reports that Mr Kushner, other sections of the Trump administration and its allies in the US Congress are seeking to “strip Palestinians of their refugee status in the region and take their issue off the table in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians”.
By delegitimising the Palestinians in a monetary, legal, and moral sense, Israel need never bother about the “Palestinian issue” again.
Part of the delegitimizing would take the form of defunding (and in Mr Kushner’s words, disrupting) the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The United States has already said it will cut the first $125 million installment of its annual payment to UNRWA by more than half, to $60 million. This is significant considering America has helped pay for UNRWA since its formation in 1949.
But Mr Kushner, this US administration, Israel and its supporters believe the agency should not be supported for two reasons –
** it keeps Palestinians in a mental state of refugee-hood and has done so for nearly 70 years. They are particularly incensed that UNRWA grants refugee status to descendants of the 700,000 or so who fled British-Mandate Palestine. It is said to have thereby swelled the numbers of Palestinian refugees to roughly five million, nearly one-third of whom live in camps across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza.
** it gives Palestinians special status among refugees because they have their own bespoke agency. Israel’s supporters argue that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees should be enough to deal with Palestinians, just as it does with other refugees.
Both of these are specious arguments. The Palestinians are getting no consideration that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees doesn’t offer other refugee groups. Descendants of Afghan, Burmese, Somali, Tibetan and other refugee groups are recognised as refugees.
More important, by denying Palestinians refugee status, it’s not as if the Palestinians will cease to think about their right to a state, to self-determination and to human dignity.
India found out that you can’t just abolish the poor, you have to work towards abolishing poverty.
The Palestinians too won’t cease to exist just because they don’t have a refugee agency or status. Their reality goes deeper than that.