The Trump Administration last week announced they would be cutting funding to the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) which provides essential food, education, health, and social services to the estimated five million Palestinian refugees located in and around Israel and Palestinian territories. The decision to withhold $65 million of the total $125 million the U.S. was set to give in funding came days after President Trump threatened to withhold aid if Palestinians did not return to peace negotiations with Israel and also appeared to be related to the fallout of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The U.S. is the single largest donor to UNRWA, having provided the agency with $368 million in 2016, including emergency funding for Palestinians caught in Syria’s Civil War. In total, the U.S. has given UNRWA an estimated $5.2 billion since 1994.
UNRWA was formed in 1949 after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and was created specifically to provide temporary support to the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian refugees. However, this temporary support soon turned into a nearly seven-decade-long programme, after a series of unsuccessful peace talks between Israel and Palestine provided no solution to the issue. UNRWA has never contributed to these peace talks, but has used its funding to support Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, through the establishment of schools, health clinics and services, food aid, and other social and public services.
While UNRWA is praised by many for the humanitarian aid it provides Palestinians, it is also criticised by others – particularly Israelis who have accused the agency of teaching anti-Israeli propaganda in schools. Other critics argue that the agency has allowed the number of Palestinian refugees to increase so dramatically, because they allow refugee status to be passed down through generations, and also do not end Palestinians’ refugee status once they acquire citizenship of another country. Asaf Romirowsky, the executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, says that the agency is the root of the issue: “[UNRWA] are the gatekeepers for the one single issue that perpetuates the conflict from generation to generation.”
However, despite these criticisms, many agree that the basic services that UNRWA does supply are necessary for the majority of Palestinian refugees, and the cuts will affect the agency deeply. For its part, the U.S. has hinted that the funding has been withheld to prompt reform within the agency, although UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness says the agency has not been approached by the U.S. with any indications of concern about UNRWA’s work. U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert also said the U.S. was attempting to encourage other countries to donate more to UNRWA, and she made no comment about the link to President Trump’s recent decision to formally acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the resulting backlash and condemnation from this decision.
Palestinians denounced the decision, while Israel praised it, although Israelis also expressed concern that funding cuts would place more financial pressure on them to provide for Palestinian refugees.
Many Palestinians also worry what the funding cuts will mean for the services UNRWA provides. Gunness has said that these funding cuts would spark the agency’s “most serious financial crisis in [their] 70-year history,” and would seriously impact the 700 schools and 150 primary healthcare clinics UNRWA runs. It would also place further pressure on countries such as Jordan and Lebanon to shoulder some of the costs, while both countries are already dealing with an influx of Syrian refugees.
UNRWA has already said they will begin a global fundraising campaign to attempt to fill the deficit in funds the U.S. has created, and Belgium has also announced plans to provide the agency with $23 million.
While UNRWA may well be in need of reform, the U.S. decision to cut funding to the agency in an attempt to encourage agency reform and other countries to donate more, will only disproportionately affect the Palestinian refugees that rely on UNRWA every day. If anything, the decision only punishes a vulnerable community, who themselves do not have the ability to meet any demands or stipulations set out by the U.S.
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