The future of more than 5 million Palestinian refugees is now in question

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With reports breaking on Thursday night in the Washington Post and New York Times, what has been the subject of hints and whispers in recent weeks has been all but confirmed: The Trump administration will end all U.S. funding to the U.N. Palestinian refugee aid program, throwing the future of some 5 million Palestinians into question.

The administration has been steadily cutting and withholding funds from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for the past year, and according to a former official quoted in the NYT, the final cut is spearheaded by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is tasked with coming up with a Middle East peace plan.

The idea is to pressure Palestinians to drop the right-of-return for their people as part any any kind of negotiation with Israel. It would also dramatically reduce the number of recognized Palestinian refugees to under 10 percent of the current number.

“It’s a big problem — this is catastrophic news,” said Basel Hamid al Aila, 30, speaking to ThinkProgress from his home in Gaza. “The people here are handling this news in a very, very bad way.”

“We are talking about an unimaginable situation…this gap will not be covered by the government in Gaza,” said Al Aila.

Foreshadowing this at an event held by the conservative think tank, Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Tuesday, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused the Palestinian government of bashing the United States, and said other countries should step in to fill the funding gap.

“Where is Saudi Arabia? Where is United Arab Emirates? Where is Kuwait? Where are all of those countries?” she said, upset that the United States, which has signed a $38 billion military aid deal with Israel, pays more for UNRWA’s programs than other countries.

Last year, the United States contributed $360 million to UNRWA funding.

“They are the ones that fight me every day on Israel issues, but yet, they don’t give a penny when it comes to any more than they have to,” she continued.

But the definition of a refugee — and the right to return — is enshrined in international law and can’t be changed by a single U.N. member state, no matter how powerful it is.

“If Ambassador Haley is tiring of the Palestine refugee issue, from the perspective of the Palestine refugees, they’ve been denied justice and their political rights for 70 years, and what causes impatience for them is the failure of the political parties to produce a just and durable solution which will see their refugee status resolved,” said Chris Gunnes, UNRWA’s Jerusalem-based chief spokesperson.

He compares this effort to an attempt to “airbrush” Palestinians refugees out of history.

“UNRWA is like 80 percent of our society — it’s a basic in our lives. You can’t imagine the trouble that we’re in now.”

“You cannot wish away 5.4 million human beings,” he added.

Founded in 1949 after the first Arab-Israel war, when some 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee as the Israeli state was founded, UNRWA meets a lot refugee needs.

Gunnes said the agency serves 2 million people in Gaza, around 750,000 in the West Bank, 2.2 million in Jordan, 535,000 in Syria (prior to the war there), and 400,000 in Lebanon. It feeds 1.7 million food-insecure refugees. At its 150 regional clinics, doctors perform 9 million patient consults each year, working with vulnerable refugees, including women and children. It provides education for 526,000 students across the region and locally employs tens of thousands.

Politics or reform?

Although President Trump has never tweeted about UNRWA — or, indeed, Palestinian refugees, by name, nor Palestine, at all — he has threatened to pull funding from other U.N. efforts (such as peacekeeping) in the past as means to push “reform” or to get other countries to pay more.

It’s hard not to notice that the United States has largely used its role in the U.N. to side with Israel, even if that choice puts it at odds with the rest of the world. The focus on Palestinian rights is the chief reason the United States left the U.N. Human Rights Council in June.

On Tuesday, Haley proudly told the crowd that now, at the U.N. “they are afraid to say anything negative about Israel because they know that I’ll yell at them.”

She also accused UNRWA of failing to reform according to Trump administration demands in January. But is that what’s really behind cutting aid to millions of Palestinians?

“Why is the Trump administration doing this — is it naked politics, put crudely, the political instrumentalization of humanitarian aid? Put even more bluntly, the use of aid, food, for example, as a political weapon? Or, is this genuinely an attempt to transform and reform UNRWA?” said Gunnes.

He pointed to a meeting between UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl and senior members of the Trump administration in November, in which U.S. officials praised the agency’s work.

Just two months later, the Trump administration announced it would withhold $60 million of UNRWA’s funding.

In the November meeting, as documented in a statement released in January after the cuts were announced, Krähenbühl noted, “The US government has consistently commended our high-impact, transparency and accountability. This was reiterated, once again, during my latest visit to Washington in November 2017, when every senior US official expressed respect for UNRWA’s role and for the robustness of its management.”

Offering a bit more detail of that meeting, Gunnes told ThinkProgress that the officials gave UNRWA “very high marks for institutional reform” and told Krähenbühl that the agencies program “were high impact” and “very transparent” in its operation.

“So you can draw your own conclusion about what has motivated this drastic cut to our funding,” said Gunnes. The anti-refugee sentiment currently on the rise in the United States does not ring true with the America Gunnes recognizes, which, he said has a “proud tradition of philanthropy and kindness and generosity toward refugees.”

“Nobody chooses to be a refugee”

Hadeel Louz, 25, lives in Gaza and is deeply worried about what’s to come as food aid and reconstruction aid (to those whose homes were demolished by Israeli missiles in 2014) get cut off.

“UNRWA is like 80 percent of our society — it’s a basic in our lives. You can’t imagine the trouble that we’re in now,” she said, despairing “It’s all about politics, you know, just to give support to Israel and putting pressure on Gaza.”

“I think there will be many protests,” said Louz.

Unrest, said Gunnes, is largely inevitable, and practically engineered to happen.

“When you’ve put a whole population on aid dependency, frankly, as a result of deliberate political choices — and then you start strangling the aid organization on which they’ve become so dependent, then of course you produce a reaction of real shock,” he said.

“Nobody chooses to be a refugee. Nobody wants to be a refugee,” said Gunnes, adding that given their treatment, “no one in their right mind would choose to be a Palestine refugee.”

Despite emergency fundraising (with Germany and Jordan already pledging to help), the agency is dealing with with a $217 million funding gap. The most immediate consequence of this will be its educational programs, having only enough funds to keep children in classrooms until the end of September. Unless the funding gap is resolved, more than half a million students will be left out of classrooms, as the agency won’t be able to pay its 22,000 teachers.

UNRWA has already announced cuts to their emergency services in the occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), cutting 250 local staff, moving another 600 in Gaza and West Bank from full-time jobs into temporary contracts.

A Palestinian child receives medical check ups and aid from the UNRWA mobile team on the outskirts of the southern West Bank city of Hebron on August 9, 2018. CREDIT: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images.

Louz, who was among those who lost her UNRWA job earlier this year, cast about for work for months before giving up and applying for scholarships. She got one — to Oxford University — to study international human rights law. Due to travel on Tuesday, she has yet to receive her permit to travel from Israel and is worried.

“The situation is just terrible,” she added.

“I am lucky, but the rest of my friends, and the rest of the youth here, are just trying to find any way to emigrate — to go to Turkey or any place in the world, because any place we are going to is not going to be worse than Gaza,” said Louz.

Among those is Al Aila, a physician, who worked at UNRWA clinics up until two months ago, but now is “sitting at home. I have nothing to do.”

He is currently trying to find a way to leave Gaza with his wife and one-year-old infant, but has not been able to figure out how to make it happen yet.

“I am in the middle of a sea, and, you could say that I am not good at swimming,” he said, “Palestinians have a lot of problems when they try to leave Gaza.”

President Trump is expected to deliver his administration’s Middle East peace plan before the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 25.

Jared Kushner — who is tasked with devising that plan — previously failed to disclose on ethics forms that his family has helped fund Israeli settlements in the West Bank.


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