What’s the best way to fight terrorism? The U.S. has certainly tried a variety of tactics since 9/11, including direct military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq with limited success. Even the death of Osama bin Laden seven years ago hasn’t thwarted the growth of terrorist organizations, which now number in the hundreds. Nor has it stopped suicide bombings and similar attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Syria, the last of which left 255 dead in the city of As-Suwayda earlier this summer.
No, the most effective anti-terrorism strategy is to prevent recruitment in the first place. Terrorism thrives when young people — primarily young men — are radicalized. Groups generally look for the poor and poorly educated, often the children of immigrants who lack a sense of identity. They may exist in desperate situations with bleak prospects — no jobs and no future. Under such dire circumstances, extremist ideologies can look appealing. These are lost souls; radicalism gives them a purpose, a value, an ideology to which they can cling. That’s why refugee camps have long been regarded as prime terrorist breeding grounds.
Given that reality, the Trump administration’s recent decision to cut aid to a United Nations group that provides help to Palestinian refugees doesn’t make much sense. The U.S. has long been a critical source of funding (as much as a quarter to a third and more than any other single country) for the UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in the belief that making sure millions of refugees, including children and the elderly displaced by the 1948 war, had access to food, housing and medical care was not only a noble humanitarian cause but helped stabilize the region and promote Israel’s security.
What changed? Clearly, President Donald Trump is no fan of United Nations’ funding, but in this case, the decision appears to be mostly a bargaining tactic. The expectation is that this dramatic loss of aid and the potential havoc it will wreak will force Palestinian leaders to make concessions, including their demand that refugees be eventually returned to their homeland in what is now Israel. But there’s reason not to be optimistic on that front. First, because the U.S. isn’t seen as a neutral party in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a perception enhanced by the Trump administration’s decision late last year to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The idea that the U.S. lacks empathy toward the Palestinians will no doubt be furthered by recent news reports that it was Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who convinced President Trump to change course on UNRWA funding. The Trump administration apparently believes that cutting humanitarian aid is a perfectly acceptable negotiating tool to soften Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, no matter how many innocent people are harmed in the process. Is that really how the United States wants to project itself on the world stage, as a heartless colonialist?
So let’s take an accounting. Greater deprivation in refugee camps for millions of Palestinians living in places like Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Hatred of the U.S., Israel and other Western nations; closed up schools (UNRWA runs 711 of them, teaching more than a half-million refugees) and a strong sense of hopelessness. What could possibly go wrong with that? We are no fans of Hamas, Fatah or the PLO, but we can recognize the foolishness, and moral pitfalls, of treating refugees as bargaining chips.
Palestinian leadership probably won’t swallow President Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century” whether the refugees get U.S. aid or not anyway. They’ve rejected plenty of good offers from more trusted bargaining partners, and there’s little sign that the Trump administration has made any headway in the peace process aside from pleasing Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s right wing. Indeed, one has to seriously wonder whether that’s been the point from the beginning — another effort by the president to keep conservatives in his coalition happy. That he’s angered the Arab community or other Western countries that continue to support humanitarian aid means little to this president.