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COLUMN: US cuts to UNRWA will have harsh consequences for Palestinian refugees



The United States has announced it will end all funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA. The State Department justified its decision by calling UNRWA “irredeemably flawed.”

UNRWA provides education, loans, health services and other humanitarian assistance to millions of Palestinian refugees and the descendants of male Palestinian refugees. For most of them, their family’s refugee status comes from the loss of their homes in 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their historic homeland, as most of it became the State of Israel.

The cuts will be a financial shock for UNRWA, an agency to which the United States has historically been the largest contributor of any state. However, this is not completely out of the blue. Earlier this year, the State Department withheld $65 million of a $125 million planned contribution to UNRWA, citing the need for reforms that were never publicly described in detail.

So, the annual U.S. contribution to UNRWA is falling from $355 million in 2017 to a big fat zero in future years. But that funding cut alone apparently wasn’t sufficient to send the political message the Trump administration has for the Palestinian people. The United States also announced last month it will cancel over $200 million in planned economic aid for Palestinians.

These funding cuts represent a shift in U.S. policy. Officials in the White House and State Department no longer feel as much of a need to pretend to care about the rights and welfare of Palestinians. 

To be clear, the United States has never maintained anything but a policy of callous disregard for the humanity of Palestinians. This has manifested in decades of U.S. complicity in Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and human rights violations against Palestinians.

However, the U.S. has historically made token efforts to appear even-handed through economic aid and UNRWA funding. The Trump administration is putting this performance to an end.

This will have very real and harsh consequences for the 5 million Palestinians registered with UNRWA. This massive cut comes as the Gaza Strip, home to 1.3 million of those 5 million people, continues sinking deeper into despair and humanitarian crisis. It also comes as Palestinian refugees in Syria suffer from that country’s civil war.

While the United States is historically UNRWA’s largest donor, that is not because it was being generous to Palestinians. U.S. contributions to UNRWA have always been chump change compared to the U.S.’s massive support for Israel. The United States gives Israel a baseline of $3.1 billion in military aid each year, more than it gives to any other country. That amount will shoot up to $3.8 billion in 2019, as per a 10-year deal signed under the Obama administration.

In other words, this isn’t about saving money. The United States could save more than 10 times as much annually by canceling its military aid pledged to Israel.

Given the United States’s complicity in Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians, funding some of the damage control is the least it can do.

The United States and Israel have called on UNRWA to eliminate the descendants of Palestinian male refugees from its mandate, complaining of the growing number of Palestinians with refugee status. 

Of course, having millions of Palestinians living in refugee camps for generations on UNRWA assistance is not a long-term solution. If the United States wants to stop spending money on these refugees, it has to apply the necessary pressure on Israel, one of its closest allies and the state responsible for the refugee problem, to take responsibility for solving it.

To be sure, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria deserve plenty of criticism for their treatment of the Palestinian refugees they host. But it’s hard to justify the United States asking Jordan and Lebanon to take on a greater burden in supporting refugees when they already host over 2 million refugees between them, not including Palestinians. 

Rather than doing its part in solving the Palestinian refugee problem, the United States aims to politicize humanitarian aid in order to pressure Palestinian refugees into relinquishing their rights and forgetting their hopes of returning to their historic homeland.

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