Trump’s funding cuts to Palestinian refugees put lives at risk

UNRWA is not a political organisation and should not be used in political games.

UNRWA protest
Palestinian employees of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) hold a sign during a protest against the US decision to cut aid, in Gaza City on January 29, 2018 [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

A bipartisan group of seven former US ambassadors to the United Nations this month sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking that the Trump administration restore its funding to UNRWA, the UN agency that provides humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees.

While the world waits to learn the details of White House adviser Jared Kushner’s so-called “peace” plan, millions of Palestinians suffer from the US government’s decision to freeze vital humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees – a decision that is putting an already marginalised population in a desperate situation.

According to the UN, Gaza will be completely uninhabitable in two years as the 11-year economic blockade, coupled with successive military operations, have shattered the coastal enclave‘s ability to export or produce for the domestic market, ravaged its already debilitated infrastructure, and left no time for reconstruction and economic recovery.

The restrictions have left 80 percent of the enclave’s two million population dependent on international assistance and have contributed to an astounding 44 percent unemployment rate.


If there has been one source of hope for the five million Palestinian refugees living in camps inside Gaza, the West Bank, and across Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, it has been UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

For seven decades, while Palestinian refugees have been waiting for a political solution, UNRWA has been providing essential food assistance, emergency relief, education, healthcare, microfinancing and employment opportunities.

In a place like Gaza, where electricity is limited to four hours a day, clean water sources have been virtually depleted, movement and access out of the enclave is allowed only for a select few and at limited times, and where hospitals and clinics are chronically underfunded and under-resourced, young people would rather risk their lives than experience one more day of humiliation that comes from living under these conditions.

Without UNRWA’s schools, hundreds of thousands of refugee children in Gaza would go without an education. The 13,000 jobs that UNRWA provides in the health, education and service sectors are an indispensable source of income for families.

Scrambling to make up the shortfall

Despite the tremendous work UNRWA does in Gaza and throughout the region to provide Palestinians with some measure of dignity, it is in danger of shuttering schools and scaling back its programmes.

The Trump administration has cut more than 80 percent of the US government’s expected $365m in contributions to the agency. This has left UNRWA scrambling to make up the shortfall while also continuing to provide emergency services needed in the aftermath of the protests in Gaza.

What is motivating the Trump administration’s funding cuts to UNRWA and to the Palestinian refugees it serves isn’t clear. If the aim is to force Palestinians back to negotiations with Israel, the US decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem has rendered it an unfit broker.

All that will be achieved by denying Palestinians humanitarian relief is that US policy towards Palestinians will be exposed as ham-handed and hopelessly biased in favour of Israel. 

As a humanitarian actor, UNRWA is neither involved in politics, nor is it in a position to impact politics. Quite simply, punishing a civilian population because of the decisions of political leaders is immoral.

US funding cuts to UNRWA are virtually guaranteed to produce exactly the type of desperation that has encouraged so many Palestinians to protest, despite the risks. As more Palestinians are maimed while US officials grotesquely praise Israeli restraint, international law and the legal mechanisms established after World War II will be challenged to the detriment of us all.

The US response to a stalled peace process should not be to cripple UN agencies mandated to provide dignity to refugees in the absence of a political solution.

It should be to support and strengthen both the organisations that provide humanitarian relief and the international bodies responsible for international peace and security. This is the way towards a durable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict that will end the senseless loss of life and limb in the Gaza Strip and in the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.