The State Department announced Friday that the United States will no longer provide funding to the United Nations’ Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees in the near East – an approximate $0.4 billion annual contribution they’ve made for decades.
In their statement, the U.S. called the UNRWA “irredeemably flawed” and criticized the fundamental ways in which they operate. President Donald Trump has previously complained about the U.S “bear(ing) an unfair cost burden” in regards to the funding of UN agencies and has warned of reducing foreign aid since his inauguration – supposedly cutting back and refocusing on countries and organisations that line up with “U.S policy priorities,” according to officials.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of a liberal advocacy group called J Street, has said that Trump’s decision “has the potential to harm millions of innocent civilians” and that this sudden reduction will contribute to “the risk of greater destabilization and conflict across the Middle East.” Allegedly in the words of U.S Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, the withdrawal of UNRWA funding is also a response to recently perceived hostility from Palestine. Secretary-General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Saeb Erekat, argues that the “UNRWA is not a Palestinian agency,” but rather, one established by the UN. Therefore, as a UN member, Erekat states that the U.S has an “international obligation to assist and support it.”
Amongst other essentials, the UNRWA currently provides education, food, healthcare, and security to 800,000 registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, 1.3 million people in the Gaza Strip, 534,000 in Syria, 464,000 in Lebanon and 2 million in Jordan. It has been in operation since 1950 and is recognised internationally as a key branch of the United Nations in regard to the services it has provided in the Middle East, particularly for Palestinian refugees.
Previously, the United States’ contributions to the UNRWA had sourced 30% of the agency’s revenue. To make up for this deficit, the international community is going to have to convene and donate larger sums if the UNRWA’s sustainable development goals are to be met. The amount of money each member state contributes to UN agencies is based on an extensive formula that takes into account gross national income and population. However, there are multiple branches of the UN that rely heavily on voluntary donations. The UNRWA is one of them and until now, the United States was a leading donor. If other funding is not supplied, the living conditions and future prosperity of Palestinian refugees will be even further impaired and any new initiatives to bring peace to the region could be disrupted yet again.
Perhaps Trump’s decision may seem reasonable from a hard-line realist perspective, in which the universality and function of human rights is skeptical and the needs of the state come first. However, may the withdrawal of support for Palestinian refugees not intensify a growing distrust between the U.S. and Palestine, especially as the U.S. prepares to release a new, highly anticipated peace plan for the region. Proactive measures must be taken by the UN to limit the inevitable blow this will have on Palestine’s refugees and we can expect to see UN member states converging soon over how to best handle this latest blow from the U.S.