UNRWA is the only UN agency committed to helping refugees from a specific region
The US has announced it will stop all funding to UNRWA, the UN Works and Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. UNRWA has provided education, health care food and social services to millions of Palestinian refugees for almost 70 years. The US State Department said in a written statement that the United States,
“will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation”.
The US has been the largest single donor to UNRWA, accounting for funding almost 30% of its operations. The move has been met with scathing responses from the international community who view this as an immense roadblock on the path to peace.
UNRWA was established in 1949 primarily for the aid of 5 million Palestinian refugees who were expelled or fled from their homes in the aftermath of the 1948 war and the subsequent establishment of the modern state of Israel. UNRWA is the only UN agency committed to helping refugees from a specific region.
At its opening the agency assisted Arab and Jewish refugees that got lost in the system of the newly establishing state. Once the state of Israel had fully and formally established itself, Jewish refugees were then looked after by the Israeli government, and UNRWA continued to assist displaced Palestinians.
Since his inauguration President Trump and his administration have called for a “sincere effort to disrupt” UNRWA. This disruption has been cited as an effort to negate Palestinian refugee status. Foreign policy analysts say that this helps to remove the issue of Palestinian refugee status from the negotiating table of peace deals. The Palestinians have been fighting for what is known as ‘right of return’ for 70 years, if they are no longer recognised as refugees or as stateless in the eyes of the international community, it means they can no longer claim any rights to returning to their homes and land.
In January this year the US had already decided to withhold more than half of its funding, over what President Trump called Palestinian unwillingness to negotiate with Israel. Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser has applied pressure on UNRWA since he started in his current role. In correspondence with several other senior US officials in January he said,
“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,”
“This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace,”
At the same time the US agreed to hand over only some of the allocated funding, giving UNRWA US$ 60 million, but holding back US $65 million back until further notice. US State department spokesperson said that the US would,
“like to see some revision made in how UNRWA operates”
In July 2018, 250 UNRWA jobs were lost with 154 employees in the West Bank and 113 employees in the Gaza strip and another 500 full-time staff were cut to part-time contracts, signalling the decline of the organisation.
The UN ‘expressed serious concern’ at the US decision and UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl called on other UN member states to assist by increasing their contributions. He said,
“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.”
“At stake is the access of refugees to primary health care, including pre-natal care and other life-saving services.”
His calls fell on deaf ears as the US finally adopted the pull out of UNRWA funding on 1 September 2018.
Germany has responded by saying that they will happily increase their contributions to UNRWA and expressed concern over the collapse of UNRWA.
“The loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction,” Mr Maas said.
The UN reiterated their trust in UNRWA, secretary general Antonio Guterres said he has “full confidence” in UNRWA. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said,
“Disruption of UNRWA services will have extremely dangerous humanitarian, political and security implications for refugees and for the whole region.”
The impact of the US withdrawal of funding will be felt strongly by the rest of the surrounding Levant region. Jordan is home to 2.1 million Palestinian refuges that have, until now, been serviced by UNRWA. Other countries in the region that are home to over 5 million Palestinian refugees include, Syria – 526,744 registered, Lebanon – 449,957, West Bank – 809,738 and Gaza – 1.3 million registered Palestinian refugees.
In contrast the response from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of praise and welcome of the US decision. He said the decision to cut funds is,
“A blessed and important change.”
His statement went on to suggest that UNRWA exaggerates the refugee situation. His comments echoing those of Jared Kushner,
“They created a unique institution, 70 years ago, not to absorb the refugees but to perpetuate them. Therefore, the U.S. has done a very important thing by halting the financing for the refugee perpetuation agency known as UNRWA,” he continued.
Conversely, it was only in February this year that US Senators called for the increase of military aid spending in Israel. The US pledged to provide US$38 billion in military aid support, which will be given to Israel over the next 10 years and is the largest aid package in US history.
The move by the US is the second tough measure of the Trump administration after the moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem sparking international concern for stability in the region. The action suggests firstly that the US’s role as a broker of peace in the 70-year-long conflict may be being brought to a close by the brash actions of the Trump administration, and secondly that the long-held hope for a two-state solution seems increasingly further from grasp.