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US Shuts Down All Funding for UN Palestine Refugee Agency

September 2, 2018

The Trump administration just announced it would no longer fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, calling it an “irredeemably flawed operation”.

An UNRWA school in Gaza, Palestine. Schools like these now have their future funding in jeopardy after the US cutoff of financial support for the agency. Photo: ISM Palestine, flckr, CC

The US had already signaled this might happen back in January, when it withheld half of its previously-pledged $120 million to the organization. On August 31, it made it official.

The agency, which carries the full name United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (Unrwa for short), was originally founded in 1949 to provide aid to over 700,000 Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Today it does far more than that. Its operations include providing health care, food, jobs, emergency financial assistance, and housing services to Palestinian refugees around the globe. It also has a school operation which supports around 526,000 children every year, in Palestine itself and in camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

In 2017, the U.S. had provided $360 million in funding. When 2018 began, UN officials were shocked to learn that all the US would even pledge was $120, just one-third of 2017’s number. That immediately put Unrwa into chaos, which this year had a planned $1.25 billion budget. Expenses were postponed and some operations curtailed early in the year. With the budget forever sliced by almost 30%, entire programs may have to be cancelled unless something else could be done.

As 2018 starting out, thanks to a warning from Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner general of Unrwa, a major fund-raising drive was launched. Donations from Arab and European countries brought in some $238 million. But with the US signaling their commitment to Unrwa was wavering more than ever, in July the agency cut 260 jobs and some mental health services. It also was still facing an estimated $217 million shortfall that could force further cuts.

The Trump Administration has made it clear since occupying the White House in January 2017 that it would be taking a far more pro-Israel stance than the past administration. Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who Trump had tasked to handle the Israel-Palestinian crisis despite a total lack of experience in international diplomacy and an establish bias towards Israel himself, also established quickly that they were there to assist Israel in achieving what it wanted – rather than broker any kind of more equitable arrangement.

Trump then made things still worse by announcing soon after taking office that the U.S. was planning to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. With that city being a key part of any discussion of a Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiation, the move created anger from Palestinians that is still seething today. Palestinian leaders said that as far as they were concerned, the United States had now forfeited its role in assisting with any future peace negotiations.

In parallel with this, the Trump administration also orchestrated a series of anti-Palestinian crackdowns even within the US’s own borders. With direction from and other tight coordination with Israeli authorities, it also worked to shut down a number of pro-Palestinian Facebook pages as well. Trump and his team also offered strong support for the recent rewriting of Israel’s constitution, which has created a virtual second-class citizen status for Palestinians living in Israel and on the Gaza Strip.

The US announcement about the funding shutdown came in a formal statement from US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. She said that the US was "no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden." She then went on to say that, "The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation."

Unrwa's response to what happened was both sad and terse. Agency spokesman Chris Guiness on Twitter said that UNRWA “expresses deep regret and disappointment at the US’ announcement that it will no longer provide funding to the Agency after decades of staunch political and financial support." He said further that, “We reject in the strongest possible terms the criticism that UNRWA’s schools, health centers, and emergency assistance programs are ‘irredeemably flawed'."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was even harsher in his response about what happened. In a statement also issued shortly after the announcement, he said, "We reject and condemn this American decision in its entirety". He urged all nations to condemn the US decision and quickly find a way to fund the gap filled by this loss.

Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, announced his country would be hosting a major fund-raising event for the agency. He described the goal as to “close the gap and put in place a plan that will ensure Unrwa’s continued, ongoing funding for the coming years.”

Germany, already dealing with a major influx of refugees from Palestine, Africa and other countries, also scrambled quickly to find a way to help Unrwa out. Its Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, said Germany would be increasing contributions well beyond its existing $94 million annual contribution to the agency. Maas said in an interview Friday that “the loss of this organization could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction”.

Germany, like others in Europe who had helped back the emergency fundraising for the agency earlier this year, is fearful that letting Unrwa shut down for lack of funds – something now a distinct possibility – could dump larger numbers of Palestinian refugees than ever before on to the European continent. Sadly, the resulting chaos in Europe would likely be cited by the Trump Administration as further proof of the correctness of the US decision to shut off Unrwa funding in the first place.

Copyright: North America Procurement Council Inc., PBC