‘Dignity and security at stake’ after US slashes funding for Palestinian refugees

Move to withhold €53m from UN agency may cause wide repercussions in region

 Palestinian women   at a   UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa)-run clinic in  Gaza: The agency   provides support for 5,266,603 registered refugees. Photograph:  Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty

Palestinian women at a UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa)-run clinic in Gaza: The agency provides support for 5,266,603 registered refugees. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty

 

The Trump administration’s decision on Tuesday to slash its funding to the UN agency serving Palestinian refugees could have wide economic, social and political repercussions in Gaza, the West Bank, east Jerusalem as well as countries hosting the refugees.

The US has said it will withhold $65 million (€53 million) of the usual first $125 million instalment of its annual $368 million contribution – a contribution which amounts to 30 per cent of the agency’s budget. Before the US decision, the agency was already facing a deficit of $150 million.

US state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington wanted other countries to increase their contributions and the agency to enact reforms.

Earlier this month, US president Donald Trump tweeted “we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect”. He also accused Palestinian leaders of refusing to negotiate a peace deal fashioned by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, after elements were leaked and rejected.

In response to the heavy blow to the cash-strapped UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), its commissioner general, Pierre Krähenbühl, said funding Unrwa or any humanitarian agency was at the discretion of any sovereign member state of the United Nations.

“At the same time, given the long, trusted, and historic relationship between the United States and Unrwa, this reduced contribution threatens one of the most successful and innovative human development endeavours in the Middle East,” he said in a statement.

“At stake is the access of 525,000 boys and girls in 700 Unrwa schools, and their future. At stake is the dignity and human security of millions of Palestine refugees, in need of emergency food assistance and other support in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ” he said.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Unrwa of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem

“At stake is the access of refugees to primary health care, including prenatal care and other life-saving services. At stake are the rights and dignity of an entire community.”

The reduced contribution also impacted on regional security at a time when the Middle East faced multiple risks and threats, he added.

‘Factor of stability’

UN secretary general António Guterres said he was “very concerned” about the cut. He pointed out that Unrwa was not a Palestinian institution, but a UN institution, and said it was “an important factor of stability” in the region.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Unrwa of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem and preserving the Palestinians’ “right-of-return . . . in order to eliminate the state of Israel”. He said the agency should “pass from the world”.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi condemned the US decision and charged the administration with “following Netanyahu’s instruction to dismantle the one agency that was established by the international community to protect the rights of the Palestinian refugees and provide them with essential services”.

An Unrwa-run clinic in the al-Nusirat refugee camp in Gaza: UN secretary general António Guterres said he was “very concerned” about funding to the agency being cut. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty
An Unrwa-run clinic in the al-Nusirat refugee camp in Gaza: UN secretary general António Guterres said he was “very concerned” about funding to the agency being cut. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty

Unrwa provides support for 5,266,603 registered refugees living in the occupied Palestinian territories, and host countries Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. There are 1.3 million refugees in Gaza (just under a million receive food aid), 775,00 in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, 2.2 million in Jordan, 450,000 in Lebanon and 527,000 in Syria.

Unrwa began operations in 1950 following Israel’s war of establishment

The aid provided by Unrwa is essential as the slender resources of the neighbouring host countries are seriously strained by millions of Syrians and Iraqis driven from their homes by war.

Host countries

There have been efforts to defund Unrwa and compel host countries to absorb the refugees since the 1960s but Palestinians refused resettlement and the proposition was found to be dangerously destabilising. It is much more so now due to the failure of the peace process to deliver a Palestinian state where refugees could resettle.

Unrwa began operations in 1950 following Israel’s war of establishment, which uprooted 750,000 Palestinians and left them in dire need. The agency now looks after their descendants.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, was also created in 1950, to resettle second World War refugees. However, the UNHCR did not assume responsibility for Palestinians as they belonged to a distinct national grouping and were meant to be repatriated and compensated for their losses under UN General Assembly resolution 194 adopted in December, 1948.

Unrwa’s critics have long argued the agency should be subsumed into the UNHCR, which is itself underfunded and already has 17.2 million of the world’s 22.5 million refugees under its remit.

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