Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – Palestinians living in refugee camps have expressed deep alarm over US threats to potentially cut funding for a relief agency tasked with providing aid and services to them.
For nearly 70 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has been the lifeline to the more than five million registered Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and neighbouring countries.
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It offers support in food supply, access to education, healthcare, social services and employment.
“Today, more than two-thirds of refugees are children who go to UNRWA schools. If the schools shut down, there will be a big problem,” Salah Ajarmeh, a 44-year-old living in Aida refugee camp outside of Bethlehem, told Al Jazeera.
“The refugee issue is a red line.”
The US is the largest contributor to UNRWA – in 2016, it donated more than $364m to the agency. It also provides the Palestinian Authority – the governmental body which administers pockets of the West Bank – with some $400m annually.
But on January 3, less than a month after prompting Palestinian anger and international outcry for naming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, US President Donald Trump threatened to cut aid to Palestinians.
In a series of tweets, Trump said: “… We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect.
“… With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
And, at a press conference in New York, Nikki Haley, Washington’s ambassador to the UN, said the US president has decided he would stop “additional funding” when asked whether her country’s donations to UNRWA would continue.
While cuts have not been implemented yet, Trump’s remarks cast doubt on the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said the agency was “being told that no decision has definitively been taken.
“I believe this uncertainty is likely to continue for a couple more weeks,” added Gunness.
Following the US threats, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for UNRWA to be scrapped and accused the agency of helping “fictitious refugees.
“UNRWA is an organisation that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and the narrative of the right-of-return, as it were, in order to eliminate the State of Israel,” said Netanyahu.
Al Jazeera visited the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps in the occupied West Bank town of Bethlehem and asked several Palestinians living there about their reaction to the potential cuts.
Many of them hail from Palestinian villages that were ethnically cleansed during the establishment of Israel in 1948, known to Palestinians as the Nakba – or “catastrophe”.
Yazan Muhammad Sabri, 18, high school student – Dheisheh camp
I am from Beit Itab, near Batir and Husan.
If the wakala [UNRWA] stopped services, there will be protests. We want services. Let me tell you something – I am a working refugee but others are refugees and poor and their self-esteem is low. I am middle class and I can help them.
But if the wakala shuts down tomorrow, think about the poor.
If the wakala goes away, there will be no education, no healthcare, no sanitation, there won’t be anything – everything will disappear.
If there is no refugee, then there is no right of return. The Palestinian refugees are holding on to the right of return more than anything. The Palestinian cause is about the right of refugees to return. This matter connects us to our grandfathers. Inshallah, we will return.
Shukri Ali al-Laham, 24, unemployed – Dheisheh camp
Dheisheh camp has a saying: “Always stand against any decision that is against refugees.”
As a refugee, I can tell you that we are insulted in everything we do. When I travel, I get insulted because I am the son of Dheisheh camp.
I wanted to change my address so I don’t get stopped for hours by the mukhabarat (intelligence agencies). We, Palestinian refugees, suffer everywhere.
There has to be a stand against this decision.
The majority of people don’t have [money]. Of course the services are important – there are lots of people that need them.
There’s no work, there’s unemployment and poverty.
Salah Ajarmeh, 44, married with four children – Aida camp
I am a Palestinian refugee from the village of Ajoor. It is 20km away from Aida camp.
I have lived all my life in this camp. The only times I’ve been away from the camp were either when I went to prison or when I was taking part in cultural activities abroad.
UNRWA is the institution that must look after the refugees.
In my opinion, UNRWA is the prime witness of the Palestinian Nakba and must remain until the refugee issue is resolved justly and the refugees return to their original villages.
There has been a scaling down of services since the Oslo agreement [in 1993]. The policy since Oslo has been to scale down services offered to Palestinian refugees. There is a clear deterioration in the service of education and deterioration in healthcare and in sanitation.
At the beginning of the refugee [wave], there were 800 people living here. Now there are some 5,000 living in the same space. Refugees cannot afford to leave the camp.
If UNRWA stops its work, I believe there will be a real revolution against the Palestinian Authority, because, over the past 25 years, it has allowed UNRWA to scale down its services. I predict there will also be an organised movement against the Israeli occupation.
Today, more than two-thirds of refugees are children, who go to UNRWA schools. If the schools shut down, there will be a big problem.
The refugee issue is a red line, it cannot be solved by ending the services [of UNRWA]. There must be a just solution. If the services stop, there will be a revolution. Palestinian uprisings began in the refugee camps in Jordan and Syria, and this will happen again.