US changes its UN vote from 'no' to 'abstention' on UNRWA affirmation

The Biden administration did not reject a UN General Assembly Resolution granting Palestinian refugees the right to return to Israel.

 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech remotely to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2021. (photo credit: JOHN ANGELILLO/POOL/REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech remotely to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2021.

The Biden administration abstained – but did not reject – a General Assembly resolution affirming the right of return for Palestinian refugees to sovereign Israel as part of a broad text in support of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

In doing so, it broke with the voting pattern on Israel set by former US president Donald Trump in which all such texts received an automatic no vote.

The Obama administration, however, had traditionally abstained from this particular text, which comes annually before the General Assembly.

“This year, the United States returns to a position of abstention on the text ‘Assistance to Palestine Refugees,’” American Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills told the assembly’s Fourth Committee late Tuesday afternoon.

He spoke as the committee gave initial approval to six anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian draft resolutions that will come up later this year at the General Assembly plenum for a final vote.

A screenshot of the results of the UN General Assembly vote on funding UNRWA. (credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)A screenshot of the results of the UN General Assembly vote on funding UNRWA. (credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)

Three of those texts affirmed the work of the UNRWA, which services 5.7 million Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

That 1948 text was written for the then "situation in Palestine."

It "resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date. 

"And compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity."

It is invoked by the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries, such as those who wrote the 2021 resolution on "Assistance to Palestinian Refugees" to support a call for the right of return.

Of the three UNRWA texts, the resolution titled "Assistance to Palestinian Refugees" is considered to be the most benign.

Canada similarly abstained on the text called Assistance to the Palestinian People, while Australia supported it. The US and Canada joined Israel in rejecting the other two resolutions on UNRWA. Australia abstained on one of those and rejected the other.

The European Union supported all three UNRWA texts. Only Israel totally opposed the text Assistance to Palestinian Refugees, which passed 160-1, with nine abstentions.

The other countries that abstained on the Assistance to Palestinian Refugees resolution were Cameroon, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papa New Guinea and Uruguay.

The Trump administration had opposed UNRWA and cut US funding to the organization. Both the Trump administration and Israel have charged that textbooks used in the agency’s schools are antisemitic and incite against Israel.

They opposed the UNRWA policy of applying refugee status to the descendants of Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948, a move that they explain creates an ever-increasing population of refugees.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, an Israeli representative spoke out against UNRWA at the Fourth Committee meeting.

“We cannot stand idly by when a UN humanitarian agency promotes a political agenda under the guise of true assistance,” the Israel representative said.

“UNRWA must be accountable for the hateful indoctrination of children in its classrooms. It must put an end to the spreading of antisemitic lies by its employees, and it must show a genuine commitment to transparency and accountability,” the Israeli representative said.

She added that UNRWA resources and infrastructure must not be hijacked by Hamas in conducting acts of terror.

Israel has also opposed the right of return for Palestinians to sovereign Israel, a move that it argues would destroy the country’s identity as the ethnic-national homeland for the Jewish people. It has explained that in a two-state resolution to the conflict, Palestinians would have a right of return solely to a Palestinian state, much like Jews would have a right of return solely to Israel.

The Biden administration, however, has restored US funding and support for UNRWA.

“As many members know, under President Biden, the United States announced it would restore its financial support to UNRWA, which we do believe is a vital lifeline to millions of Palestinians across the region,” Mills told the General Assembly.

“Since April, the US government has provided more than $318 million to UNRWA in fiscal year 2021, including critical support for education, health and social services benefiting millions of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA,” he said.

The US, he said, has noted that some changes were made to the text of the resolutions on the agency “that reflect our priorities in line with strengthening UNRWA,” adding that “the United States will continue to work with UNRWA, work to strengthen the agency’s accountability, its transparency, and its consistency with UN principles.”

Mills called on UN member states to support the agency financially, noting that many of those who voted in favor of the three UNRWA resolutions were not willing to spend money on the organization.

“I would also like to take a moment to point out the overwhelming support from member states for these resolutions voted here today, compared with the relatively few member states that financially support UNRWA,” he said.

“In light of the agency’s urgent shortfall, the United States urges member states to support UNRWA’s services for Palestinian refugees not only in word but in action – and to do so on an expedited basis,” Mills said.

The resolutions were voted on in advance of a donor pledging conference for UNRWA scheduled to take place in Belgium on November 16.

The Fourth Committee also approved three other resolutions on Israel, including one that called for it to relinquish its sovereignty over the Golan Heights it captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981. To date, only the US has recognized Israeli sovereignty on the Golan.

The Golan resolution passed 144-2, with 22 abstentions. Israel and the United States opposed the resolution, and the European Union supported it. Canada and Australia were among those that abstained.

A fifth resolution that condemned Israeli settlement activity and Israeli sovereignty over east Jerusalem passed 142-7, with 16 abstentions. Those countries that opposed it were Israel, the United States, Canada, Hungary, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Nauru. The text also took Israel to task for settler violence and IDF demolition of Palestinian homes.

The final resolution was on the work of the special committee to investigate Israeli practices affecting human rights of the Palestinian people. It lacked majority support, but was still approved, 77-17, with 74 abstentions. Those who opposed it were Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Czech Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Israel, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Philippines, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

None of the EU member nations supported the text.

The resolutions are part of a package of close to 20 annual resolutions against Israel the General Assembly is set to approve before the end of the year.

The Israeli representative told the General Assembly that these texts were “disproportionate, one-sided and rooted in bias against” her country.

“Israel is the only country – the only country – that is subject to such systematic discrimination in the UN,” she added.

Mills, whose country opposed five of the texts, also charged that the UN is biased against Israel.

“We are disappointed that member states continue to disproportionately single out Israel” he said.

The Palestinian representative, in contrast, thanked the Fourth Committee for its support.

“Adoption of these resolutions again by overwhelming majority reaffirms the international community’s abiding positions on these core issues and renews a significant message of solidarity to the Palestinian people,” she said.

“Such broad support is also the clearest answer to the false and libelous statement made in this committee by the Israeli representative against UNRWA and the hostility directed against the special committee.”