On the 31 August 2018 the United States Department of State released a press statement announcing the decision to cut all funding from the United States to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). In this statement, the department spokesperson stated that the “United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation” in regards to UNRWA.

This move has been viewed as additional intervention in Israel’s favour by the US, a trend that began with the controversial decision by President Trump to recognise  Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017. That decision spurred reactions from many international organisations, including WILPF. WILPF Secretary-General, Madeleine Rees, called it “irresponsible,” and a “violation of international law.” The feeling of US bias in favour of Israel has been further exacerbated by the transfer of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and the recent announcement of the closure of the Palestinian mission in Washington.

Impacting the entire region

The US was behind the establishment of UNRWA in 1950, with a promise that its creation would lead to the implementation of the UN Resolution 194 (1948) which called for unconditional return of the Palestinian refugees. Almost 70 years later, the resolution is yet to be implemented and the US remains the largest individual donor of the agency. Consequently, the funding cut will have a devastating impact on the lives on Palestinian refugees, and the international commitment to sustain refugees until they return to their homeland, as stated by the UN General Assembly, may no longer be honoured.

According to UNRWA, there are 1.5 million registered refugees, dispersed between the 58 recognised refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. In addition, there are over five million unregistered Palestinian refugees. However, one of the conflict points between the US and UNRWA is the belief that UNRWA over exaggerates the number of refugees and therefore their budget.

Diminishing the number of refugees threatens the question of the right of return for displaced Palestinians and their descendants. The refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is a violation of the UN Resolution 194, which mandates that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

In an interview with BBC Radio Newshour, UNRWA spokesperson, Chris Gunness, spelled out the repercussions of such action. “The impact will be absolutely devastating,” he said, “It is likely to be widespread, profound, dramatic and unpredictable. Because let’s make no mistake, some of the most marginalised, and fragile and vulnerable communities in the Middle East are going to likely suffer, because of this; 526,000 school children receiving an UNRWA education everyday, 1.7 million food insecure people, 3.5 million patients coming to our clinics every day. We do assistance to disabled refugees, to women, to vulnerable children, the list goes on.”

WILPF Palestine President, Dr. Hanan Awwad, similarly notes that, “if the funding gap is not covered by other countries, Trump’s decision, an attempt to negate the right of return of the Palestinians, will have a devastating impact on the lives of millions of Palestinians.” She also raises alarm on the potential loss of the essence of historic Palestine.

Already, Palestinian refugees struggle to gain access to basic human needs. A member of WILPF Lebanon’s Executive Committee, Shirine Jurdi, states that “Palestine refugees in Lebanon face acute socioeconomic deprivation and legal barriers compensated for by UNRWA services.” Jurdi emphasises that the cut would have a large impact on the young, claiming that “the widespread despair and high levels of unemployment of the young will definitely lead to losing hope; and, subsequently, open the horizons to unknown consequences.”

Moving Forward After the Cut

WILPF has dedicated much of its efforts for the past 80 years to highlight the gendered impact of the Israeli occupation. Moreover, WILPF has repeatedly emphasised the importance of the gender dimension in peace and security in the Middle East. As Gunness states, women feature as some of the most marginalised in the region and in the conflict.

However, the reality of the situation is that humanitarian support requires money for such efforts to be successful. The cut in funding places UNRWA in an unprecedented deficit, resulting from the shortfall of almost 200 million US dollars.

UNWRA services also include educational programmes for refugees in the camps to help their communities.

In a courageous move, UNRWA decided to open schools on time this past week, with Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl, stating that “the prospect of over half a million students not attending schools was deeply unsettling.” However, Krähenbühl additionally mentions that a further 217 million USD is still needed in order to keep schools open until the end of the year.

During a Security Council Open Debate in July 2018, the necessity of preserving financial commitments, including in the form of voluntary donations to UNRWA was highlighted by speakers. The importance of UNRWA’s role in maintaining livelihoods for Palestinians affected by the conflict was acknowledged by many of the representatives present. Time and time again, the need for increasing funding to UNRWA and other humanitarian agencies has been a topic of discussion at the United Nations.

It is even more crucial now that states and individuals band together, reaffirm their commitment to funding for UNRWA, to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those who remain without the permanent solution promised so many years ago.