To make a resolution for self-development and personal aims at the start of the New Year is a natural thing. Those resolutions, however, usually range from going to the gym to starting a long overdue diet plan. Rarely, if ever, do those resolutions consist of degrading an entire people of their future and dignity, but that is exactly what the United States set out to do long before 2019 even began.
Since the United States announced it was withdrawing funding and support for the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) in summer last year, the agency – the primary lifeline for the Palestinian diaspora exiled by the occupying force of Israel – has been undergoing a financial crisis unlike any other it has witnessed in its seven decades of service.
When UNRWA was created in 1949 there were around 750,000 Palestinian refugees under its supervision, but now there are some five million individuals worldwide who are eligible for support by the UN agency, including the descendants of male refugees and their adopted children. Overall, however, the primary recipients of UNRWA aid, and those most in need of it, have been Palestinian refugees in the 58 recognised camps in the Middle East; in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
For decades, the US was by far the largest contributor to UNRWA, pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to the agency, along with the European Union and various Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. In 2017 alone, it contributed around $364 million to the agency. The cut in US funding, therefore, was a hard hit for UNRWA and the agency was forced to raise extra funds from its other member states, eventually managing to gather an additional $122 million to see it through the remainder of 2018. This year looks to be even bleaker.
Despite UNRWA’s efforts and that of member states who increased their funding, the camps in the region and the Palestinian refugees inhabiting them have been directly hit by the withdrawal of US funding. One camp in Lebanon, on the outskirts of the capital Beirut, suffering particularly as a result.
Adel Nayfeh, a former Palestinian refugee now working as an interpreter for UNRWA in the area, informed Middle East Monitor in December of the massive hits that both education and healthcare have taken in particular. “Three years ago they started to minimise it,” Nayfeh said regarding the sharp decrease in funds, until it decreased by 70 per cent in Lebanon. This has affected the nearly 700 schools in which 500,000 refugee children study annually. “So they are not able now to do education very well, they are not able to pay for the schools. And even the UNRWA schools are in a bad need for the support which was taking place.”
He outlined the effect the cuts have had on the accessibility of healthcare and medication in the camp, stating that “three years ago UNRWA was covering 80 per cent of the medication, especially the operations, and the patient was covering 20 per cent, or he was supported by an association or foundation.” After two years, however, the agency started covering only 40 per cent in some cases, leaving patients to pay 60 per cent of their medication and healthcare costs. “And most of the hospitals who were dealing before with UNRWA,” Nayfeh continued, “they will tell you ‘sorry, we are not contracted anymore because they didn’t pay us.’ This is the direct effect, because those people left after 70 years without assistance.”
Theft of the last shred of dignity
The official reason the US cut its funding to UNRWA was, as President Donald Trump said, the “massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians” was disproportionate compared to the contribution of other member states. As a form of blackmail, he added to the Palestinians that “we’re not paying until you make a deal.”
It is well known that the US can no longer legitimately be a mediator between the Palestinians and Israel: it gave up that supposed role when it revealed its true support for the state of Israel (not like anyone was fooled beforehand) through Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the state’s capital in 2017. This move, however, is more than a simple tactic to favour Israel, but signals possibly the largest threat to the potential for Palestinian statehood and the refugees’ right of return.
Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general and former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, admitted himself that “reduction in funds is one way to shut up and close UNRWA. How do you do it? By saying, ‘UNRWA, you don’t exist anymore, with all due respect.’”
By removing the hundreds of millions of dollars of funding from UNRWA, the US is attempting to suffocate the agency and strictly limit its activities in providing support for Palestinian refugees. Over time, the agency will be on its last legs and will collapse, causing the Palestinians’ status as refugees to be redundant and worthless. In turn, the removal of the refugee status from the Palestinian diaspora means that they would lose the right of return, ending the decades-long debate about the Palestinians’ right to return to their land and homes that are now in Israel and occupied by settlers. It would leave the approximately 5.3 million Palestinian refugees registered with the agency even more stateless than they currently are. As the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “The loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction.”
“This is the dangerous thing, that’s why a lot of people from the Palestinians are dreaming that they can escape,” Nayfeh explains.
First they took their lands, then they took their homes, and now the US and Israel seek to corner the Palestinians and take their status as refugees from them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.