Cutting US funds to Palestinians could have devastating consequences

There are two theories why the Trump administration took such a draconian and harmful action.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Increasingly vulnerable. A Palestinian man carries a bag of flour outside an UNRWA aid distribution centre in Khan Younis, on September 4.(AFP)
Increasingly vulnerable. A Palestinian man carries a bag of flour outside an UNRWA aid distribution centre in Khan Younis, on September 4.(AFP)

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration’s decision to cease funding the UN agency that provides vital assistance to Palestinian refugees came on the heels of the administration’s decision to cut US assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The United States has been the largest single financial donor to both the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the PA.

There are two theories why the Trump administration took such a draconian and harmful action: One is that doing so reflects the views of hard-line, right-wing Israelis that the Palestinians are not really a people, the refugees are not really refugees and the PA is effectively a terrorist organisation bent on the destruction of Israel. Many of these Israelis are close to David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, who long has shared their views.

Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and professor at George Mason University, said: “The decision to terminate financial support to UNRWA is yet another attempt to resolve a final status issue of Palestinian refugees by political fiat.”

The other theory holds that withdrawing funds for Palestinians in refugee camps reflects US President Donald Trump’s negotiating style and is designed to get the Palestinians to the negotiating table where, presumably, they would accept terms that the United States and Israel impose. By this theory, Palestinian refugees — including children and the elderly — are chips to be used to coerce the PA to accept politically unacceptable terms.

In fact, these two theories are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive.

In a letter to supporters, Abby Smardon, executive director of UNRWA USA, wrote: “It seems the US administration is trying to wish away the number of Palestine refugees who exist in an attempt to minimise and delegitimise the individual and collective experiences of this community. The undeniable fact remains that the US government cannot simply make refugees disappear and, no matter what, Palestine refugees have rights — like all refugees do — under international law.”

Sean Carroll, president and CEO of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), said: “Funding cuts deepen the challenges facing Palestinian refugees and worsen the humanitarian crisis in the vulnerable communities where both UNRWA and ANERA work.”

Since 1968, ANERA has worked with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) conducting and managing projects funded by the US government — funds that now are being cut.

“USAID funding cuts will affect tens of thousands of people living in impoverished and vulnerable communities,” Carroll said. “ANERA will be forced to halt six projects in the pipeline, including renovation of a centre for children with disabilities in East Jerusalem and vital upgrades to neighbourhood water networks in Gaza and the West Bank, where access to clean water is particularly dire.”

The reduction in funds to UNRWA that for decades has provided humanitarian aid, including food, health care and education, to several million Palestinians, will have devastating consequences for people directly affected and Jordan and Lebanon, which host refugee camps.

“It is hard to speculate on how the cuts will affect the political stability of Lebanon and Jordan but it is fair to guess that cuts in jobs and services will adversely affect fragile economies and cause more suffering in places like Gaza and the impoverished camps of Lebanon,” Carroll said.

Both Lebanon and Jordan are straining to support the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled to those countries and who are not recipients of UNRWA assistance. In a worst-case scenario, the reduction in UNRWA’s capabilities to deliver services could lead to economic deprivation and social unrest, both of which are recipes for increased jihadist influence. In the end, everyone’s security, including Israel’s, could be undermined.

Some countries have pledged to raise their contributions to UNRWA to help offset the Trump administration’s actions. Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Russia increased their contributions earlier in the year in anticipation of a cut or reduction in US assistance, something the Trump administration has considered since the UN General Assembly voted last December to condemn Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Carroll, however, said that the United States is single largest contributor to UNWRA and “it is difficult to envision filling such a large gap.”

In 2017 the United States contributed $364 million to UNRWA’s budget of $874 million.

Smardon told her supporters: “The shortsighted decision to cut funding for the foreseeable future seems to represent a politicisation of humanitarian assistance… support for UNRWA’s work — or any UN humanitarian agency — should never be politicised.”

Smardon’s organisation is conducting fundraising events and appeals to raise private funds in the United States to support UNRWA’s work but any amount raised is likely to be mostly symbolic.