The Irish Times view on Trump and Palestinian refugees: the EU must step up

Washington’s move against UNRWA could produce a humanitarian crisis

Palestinian students attend their class at Haifa School which is run by the United Nations Works and Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. Photograph: Nabil Mounzer/EPA

Palestinian students attend their class at Haifa School which is run by the United Nations Works and Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. Photograph: Nabil Mounzer/EPA

 

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides for Palestinian refugees, has one of the most important functions in the UN system. But it has been scandalously under-funded for decades. Now, with the Trump administration’s announcement that it will cease funding for the agency, its very existence is in doubt.

Established in 1949 to help the 700,000 Palestinians who were forced from or fled their homes in what is now Israel, UNRWA today provides services to about 5 million Palestinian refugees – including descendants of the orginal exiles – across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. It runs schools, primary care centres, micro-finance schemes and infrastructure projects, and provides aid to the poorest families.

The growing refugee count was cited by Washington, UNRWA’s biggest donor, in its decision to withhold funding. The US, along with right-wingers in Israel, argues that only those who were alive in 1949 should be recognised as refugees – a position at odds with other UN operations that treat the descendants of the displaced. The Trump administration also claims that UNRWA’s work only perpetuates the refugees’ plight.

That’s disingenuous. What perpetuates the Palestinians’ plight is the failure of the international community to press for a fair and just settlement to the conflict. A more telling insight into Trump administration thinking was provided by UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who complained about how “the Palestinians continue to bash America”. Just as with the decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cuts to development aid in Gaza, this is a vindictive move aimed at hurting and humiliating Palestinians and forcing their leaders towards an imposed settlement that leans heavily towards Israeli demands. That wouldn’t be in Israel’s interest, let alone that of the Palestinians or the region in general.

Trump’s move against UNRWA threatens a humanitarian crisis. The EU and the Arab states must act urgently to help make up the shortfall the agency needs to provide its vital services.

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