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Trump’s UNRWA Funding Cut Aims to Erase Palestinian Right of Return

Specials- Palestinian refugees
Palestinian refugees attend UNRWA school in the Baqa’a refugee camp, near Amman, on 2 September 2018. Photo AFP

Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established under a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 8 December 1949 to provide relief and employment programmes for displaced Palestinians.

UNRWA data indicates that the agency provides assistance and protection to some 5 million Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, pending a political solution to grant them the right of return and compensation in accordance with UNGA Resolution 194. The services provided by UNRWA include education, primary health care, food relief for the poorest, improved infrastructure in Palestinian camps, community support and microcredit.

UNRWA first announced it was having financial difficulties in early August 2015, when spokesman Adnan Abu-Hasnah said that the agency was facing a major deficit. He warned that the situation would worsen, which could threaten education and other services. However, the real financial crisis began when US President Donald Trump, in a twitter statement on January 3rd, 2018, made the Palestinians’ resumption of negotiations with the Israelis a condition for funding UNRWA. This was followed by an announcement by the US State Department on 31 August that it was ending all funding to UNRWA, which it described as ‘irredeemably flawed’.

The US administration has “carefully reviewed” the issue and “will not make additional contributions to UNRWA”, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

The US had previously provided about a third ($360 million) of UNRWA’s total annual budget of $1.1 billion.

Main Political Players

Various statements made by US politicians concerning UNRWA suggest that the refugee issue is the main obstacle to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The White House said that UNRWA’s mandate should be changed because it has prolonged the issue of Palestinian refugees. This position came out after the US-based magazine Foreign Policy disclosed messages by Trump adviser Jared Kushner demanding that UNRWA’s work be ended and stating that liquidating the agency would pave the way for peace with the Palestinian people. Israel, which is backed by the US, holds a similar position.

Moreover, Congressman Doug Lamborn has proposed a draft bill to redefine the term ‘Palestinian refugee’ and confine it to a certain category of people who have been displaced from their homes without their descendants. According to this definition, the number of refugees does not exceed 40,000, which is the number of Palestinians who were displaced during the 1948 war and who are still alive.

These positions ignore relevant international resolutions on East Jerusalem, which is internationally recognized as a city under Israeli occupation, and the UNGA resolutions on the right of return and compensation for Palestinian refugees. Further complicating the refugee issue is Trump’s much-touted ‘deal of the century’, which includes US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – abandoning decades of US policy – and the UNRWA funding cut.

Reactions to Funding Cut

From the start, many Palestinian parties and civil society organizations branded the UNRWA financial crisis as a political one that is primarily aimed at eliminating the refugee issue from the agenda of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  The spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the US decision to defund UNRWA an attack on the rights of the Palestinian people. For its part, Hamas, the political and militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, rejected the crisis and described it as fabricated by Israel. Hamas also demanded that the international community, represented by the UN, take full responsibility for protecting the political and financial rights of Palestinian refugees until they return to their homes. It also rejected all forms of resettlement.

Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arab League condemned the US decision. In Europe, France said it deeply regrets the US decision and confirmed that it would continue to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees. Germany went a step further, stating it would increase its annual financial support to UNRWA and asked its EU counterparts to help, to overcome the shortfall.

Impact on Staff and Refugees

A Palestinian woman waits with her children to get food supplies from UNRWA in Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on February 11, 2018. Photo AFP

In the meantime, UNRWA spokesperson Sami Mshasha said that UNRWA has terminated the contracts of more than 260 emergency programme employees (113 in Gaza and 154 in the West Bank) and reduced the working hours of 900 other staff until the end of 2018. This downsizing policy and inability to meet financial obligations have raised concerns that UNRWA schools may not be able to reopen. The Palestinian NGO Network, which includes 133 civil society organizations, warned that not starting the new school year on time would be ‘extremely dangerous’ and undermine the Palestinian cause.

Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, said in a press conference on 16 August that the new school year for 526,000 students at 711 UNRWA schools would start on schedule in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. At the same time, he confirmed that the financial crisis has not yet been resolved and there is still about a $217 million deficit.

Jordanian Position, Role in Palestinian Refugee Issue

The Palestinian refugee issue perhaps most affects neighbouring Jordan, which hosts nearly 2 million Palestinian nationals (around 40 per cent of all Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA), more than 370,000 of them living in nine refugee camps. Following a meeting with Krähenbühl on 30 August, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that the financial crisis facing UNWRA could have a “catastrophic impact” on the lives of millions of refugees in the region and deny refugees basic education, health care and food security, deepening their suffering. Safadi called on the international community to shoulder their political and moral responsibilities toward Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN resolutions that preserve their right of return and compensation.

For several weeks, dozens of UNRWA staff have staged an open sit-in at the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City to protest against the decision of Matthias Schmale, director of operations in the Gaza Strip, to shut down the emergency programme and force hundreds of employees into early retirement. The sit-in is likely to continue and may escalate in the coming weeks if Schmale’s decision is not reversed.

All the evidence points to the UNRWA crisis being mainly political, not financial. It therefore requires a political decision by the UN either to maintain UNRWA’s current mandate to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees around the world, or to revoke its commitment to the agency and transfer the responsibility for Palestinian refugees to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

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