The US administration of President Donald Trump cut hundreds of millions of dollars that go to fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in January.
It is beginning to dawn on Palestinians how this decision, taken by a country which is historically the largest donor to the UN agency, will affect their day-to-day lives.
For example, on 5 July, UNRWA fired hundreds of its employees in Gaza, citing shortage of funds. The employees and their families started a protest at the UNRWA headquarters.
Permanent employees in the coastal strip received contract extensions of only one month.
But the story is much bigger than UNRWA’s workers. This relief and human development organisation has provided socio-economic backing to Palestinian refugees since the 1948 Arab–Israeli war.
Serving about 5 million Palestinian refugees, it provides them with multi-dimensional assistance in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Speaking to Ahram Online, UNRWA Spokesperson Christopher Gunness said the United States vowed last year to fund UNRWA with US$ 365 million, though they have now cut the sum by $305 million.
He said that other states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey and India stepped in, attempting to save the situation, providing $200 million in cash thus far, following funding campaigns by UNRWA, however, a budget deficit persists.
Describing the implications of the US move as “pretty terrible” and “unprecedented”, Gunness said it will negatively impact UNRWA’s emergency programs, 335,000 children in its schools, vulnerable women, and food programmes.
According to UNRWA’s website, the emergency programmes cover the cost of unexpected need for interventions in “critical sectors” such as food and cash assistance, livelihoods, community mental health, education, shelter, water and sanitation.
These programmes are directed towards roughly 830,000 Palestinian refugees living under the poverty line, covering 45,870 emergency cash-for-work opportunities, counselling for 25,000 refugee children, and "summer fun weeks" for 120,000 children to “mitigate the impact of both conflict and poverty on students’ physical and mental health and on their learning and development.”
Palestinian employee of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) hold a sign during a protest against a U.S. decision to cut aid, in Gaza City January 29, 2018 (Reuters)
Based on the 2017 Pledges to UNRWA’s Programmes document, also published on its website, the UNRWA said it expects to collect more than $1 billion both in “Cash and In-kind” from its donors. The large sum of money expected from the US represents a large proportion of this, explaining why its absence will cause a problem in 2018.
Seven ex-US ambassadors to the UN, from both republican and democratic administrations, urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in early July “to restore US funding to help fill this [financial] gap.”
"This financial gap puts into question the ability of UNRWA to continue to deliver education and healthcare services to millions of people, and has national security ramifications for our closest allies, including Israel and Jordan," they said in a letter sent to Pompeo.
Michael Brecher, professor of political science at McGill University, believes that the use of sanctions by Trump reflects a pattern, as opposed to a position linked only to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“Trump has used sanctions much more frequently, during his first 18 months in office than earlier presidents. For him, sanctions are a legitimate and, mistakenly, an effective instrument to achieve some of his goals, notably in the Iran (DIS) agreement case and, the reduction of U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinians currently in process.”
Daniel Serwer, a scholar with the Middle East Institute (MEI) and ex-minister-counsellor at the US State Department, took a similar view, hoping that “other countries will see fit to fill the gap the US has unfortunately opened.”
“UNRWA is still short $ 200 million for this year. Using aid that is fundamentally humanitarian for political purposes is disreputable and potentially a violation of international humanitarian law. It certainly does not fit with past U.S. practice, though it admittedly is not surprising coming from Donald Trump,” Serwer stated.
But why did Trump’s administration decide to stop its financial support to UNRWA?
The Americans argue that, according to State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert, funding UNRWA was a “pledge” and not a “guarantee”. However, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley repeatedly stresses that funding will be considered if the Palestinians accept new peace talks.
“I think the president has basically said that he doesn’t want to give any additional funding until the Palestinians are agreeing to come back to the negotiation table,” Haley was quoted as saying in January. “We’re trying to move for a peace process but if that doesn’t happen the president is not going to continue to fund that situation.”
Aside from the UNRWA crisis, the Palestinian-American relations have become tense in the past months, and peace talks — halted since 2014 — do not look likely to return any time soon.
Protests in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have taken place recently following the decision of Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, leading to the deaths of around 60 Palestinians and the injury of thousands others.
As Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, engaging in a new negotiating process is meaningless, at least in the meantime.
Mohanad Al-Aklok, senior diplomat in the Palestinian delegation at the Arab League, told Ahram Online that China’s President Xi Jinping informed Palestinians that Beijing will increase its financial support to UNRWA, without specifying the amount to be pledged, while the Arab states, Japan, and Russia also showed willingness to support the organisation.
These developments happened during the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), which was established in 2004 by the former Chinese President Hu Jintao with the 22-member states of the Arab League, during the Chinese leader's visit to its Cairo headquarters.
In its meeting on 10 July, which Al-Aklok attended, the CASCF called the “international community to be committed to UNRWA and secure adequate resources, contributions and a financial safety network to allow it to continue performing its duties towards the Palestinians in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution 194 that was adopted in 1948."
“Trump’s administration is trying to liquidate the Palestinian refugee crisis, through financially weakening UNRWA, and consequently ending its role, just as it liquidated the Jerusalem crisis by recognizing it as the capital of Israel,” Al-Aklok said.
“We are aware of this approach as we consider the right of return for Palestinians a key issue, and we present our case in all Arab and international conferences,” he concluded.