Wishing away Palestinian refugees: End of US’ UNRWA aid explained
‘Doomsday scenario’ could unfold unless Palestinian agency replaces US funding within 30 days, spokesperson says.
The UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) has called the decision by the Trump administration to no longer commit funding “deeply regrettable” and “shocking”.
Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief Works and Agency, said on Saturday Friday’s move would affect “millions of people” including “some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised on this planet”.
For nearly 70 years, UNRWA has provided lifesaving assistance to more than five million Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, as well as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
But over the past year, the US government has made it increasingly clear it considers the work the organisation does, and who it considers as refugees, to be an obstacle in the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In January, a month after President Donald Trump sparked widespread international condemnation by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the White House decided to cut $65m in aid to UNRWA.
It was later reported that the Trump administration had withheld about $305m in funding, and only delivered $60m to UNRWA.
UNRWA told Al Jazeera it spent the next eight months scrambling for financial assistance, and was only able to continue operating after large contributions were raised by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which donated $150m between them.
The US decision to stop all funding to the UN agency, which it called an “irredeemably flawed operation”, was quickly criticised by the Palestinian leadership.
A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also pushed back against claims that the agency was inefficient.
“UNRWA has a strong record of providing high-quality education, health and other essential services, often in extremely difficult circumstances,” a statement by Stephane Dujarric read.
“The secretary-general calls on other countries to help fill the remaining financial gap, so that UNRWA can continue to provide this vital assistance, as well as a sense of hope this vulnerable population.”
What is UNRWA?
Originally established as a temporary solution, UNRWA was set up after the creation of Israel in 1948 to assist the more than 700,000 Palestinians who were forcibly expelled from their towns and villages.
Since then, it has helped four generations of Palestinians with basic needs, including housing, healthcare, education and social services.
Employing more than 30,000 staff, it mostly works in education, and operates closely with local government bodies.
It helps more than half of the Gaza Strip‘s two million population, a region which has been devastated by more than 10 years of blockade.
According to UNRWA, Gaza suffers from a 44 percent unemployment rate.
Gunness, the agency’s spokesman, told Al Jazeera that if UNRWA didn’t receive emergency cash injection in the next 30 days, when its funds are expected to run dry, a “doomsday scenario” could unfold.
“Let there be no mistake; this decision is likely to have a devastating impact on the lives of 526,000 children who receive a daily education from UNRWA; 3.5 million sick people who come to our clinics for medical care; 1.7 million food insecure people who receive assistance from us, and tens of thousands of vulnerable women, children and disabled refugees who come to us.
“If we don’t fill a funding gap of $217m very quickly, they are all likely to suffer.”
I was born in a tent in a refugee camp. I was raised in camp. Without the help of UNRWA, I would not have had clothes, food or schooling.
What programmes does it offer?
According to UNRWA, the US provided $364m to the agency last year. Other member states donated $650m.
The funds helped provide for basic commodities such as flour, rice, sugar, powdered milk, canned meats, pharmaceuticals and drugs, as well as general supplies such as school textbooks and equipment.
Mohammad Oweis, a Washington, DC-based political analyst and researcher, who specialises in the Middle East, said the agency helped people such as himself go on to live a better life.
“I was born in a tent in a refugee camp. I was raised in camp. Without the help of UNRWA, I would not have had clothes, food or schooling,” he said.
Why is funding being cut?
Key to the Trump administration and Israel’s criticism of UNRWA is the way the agency counts the refugees – its total includes the descendants of refugees who were originally displaced by the creation of Israel.
Israel fears that the passing of refugee status from parents to children could threaten the country’s so-called “Jewish character”, as Palestinians claim the right of return to their ancestral homeland.
Earlier this year, 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,” Netanyahu said.
His comments were echoed earlier this week by Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, who accused the agency of exaggerating the number of Palestinian refugees it currently provides aid to, amid reports Washington is planning to cap the number it officially recognises as refugees at only 500,000.
“We will be a donor if it (UNRWA) reforms what it does … if they actually change the number of refugees to an accurate account, we will look back at partnering them,” Haley said.
By undermining UNRWA’s definition of refugees, the administration appears to be attacking the Palestinian belief in the “right of return”.
Mustafa Barghouti, a former Palestinian information minister and secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, said the decision to end funding was “not just an economic act, but also a political one”.
“The US tried to liquidate the issue of Jerusalem by saying they were removing it from the negotiating table, now they want to kill UNRWA with the aim of killing the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.
“These are actions aimed at liquidating the Palestinian issue completely while trying to normalise relations between Israel and Arab countries.
“This will fail and what the Americans have done will make us more determined to stick to the rights of Palestinian refugees, especially after their nationalistic law, which is nothing but a system of apartheid”.
Sam Bahour, a cofounder of the Right to Enter campaign, which highlights Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement, agreed, adding that the end of funding would awaken the Palestinian community.
“They are trying to force down Palestinians throats this idea that they will no longer return home, and this is something the Palestinians have historically refused to accept.”
In emails leaked to Foreign Policy magazine last month, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner described the agency as not conducive to “peace”.
And during his visit to Jordan last June, he reportedly pushed for the refugee status of the two million Palestinians registered in the country to be dissolved.
By cutting aid, the US is violating international law.
What will the cut mean for ordinary Palestinians?
With the UN struggling to grapple with a host of international crises, the shortfall could have disastrous consequences for the five million Palestinian refugees.
According to Gunness, the $217m shortfall means that by the end of the month “UNRWA will be running on empty and won’t have enough money to pay for its 22,000 teaching staff”.
“After September we won’t have enough money to run our schools, health clinics and our relief and social services programmes,” he said. “We are working tirelessly to avoid that.”
Is anyone stepping in?
UNRWA’s planned budget for 2018 was over $1bn. So far, Gulf states, Norway, Turkey and Canada have stepped in with pledges of $238m to help meet the budget deficit.
Gunness said it was “remarkable” the agency had managed to raise so much in the past eight months, adding it had a “long way to go,” as these pledges still needed to be paid out.
“We have been very generously supported by over 20 major donors and were looking for money from all of them and also from new donors,” he said.
On Friday, Jordan’s Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi said Amman would host a fund-raising at the UN headquarters later in September with the aim to “close the gap and put in place a plan that will ensure UNRWA’s continued, ongoing funding for the coming years”.
Meanwhile, Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said Berlin had pledged to significantly increase its future contributions, from roughly $94 million this year to an unspecified larger amount.
The Reuters news agency quoted him as saying that “the loss of [UNRWA] could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction”.
How have the Palestinian Authority and Hamas responded?
Senior members of the Palestinian Authority denounced the US decision and said it violated international law.
Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah tweeted: “We reject the US administration’s decision to stop its funding of UNRWA in its latest blatant aggression against the rights of the Palestinian people, international law and UN General Assembly resolution 302 of 1949, which specified that the UN agency was established to provide its services in all areas until the refugee issue is resolved”.
Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Ryad al-Maliki said: “We will challenge the Trump decision & UNRWA is here to stay as long as there is one Palestinian refugee left.”
Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, said the pro-Israel bias of Trump’s administration has disqualified it from any role in the peace process.
“By cutting aid, the US is violating international law. UNRWA is not a Palestinian agency but was established by the United Nations, and there is an international obligation to assist and support it until all the problems of the Palestinian refugees are solved.”
Meanwhile, Sami Abu Zuhri, a senior official of Hamas, which administers the Gaza Strip, tweeted: “The US decision to cancel aid to UNRWA aims to remove the right of return and represents a serious American escalation against the Palestinian people. The decision reflects the Zionist background of the American leadership that has become an enemy of our people and our Muslim nation as a whole.
“We insist that we will not succumb to such unjust decisions”.