The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) recognizes the recent United States Department of State’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to reduce funding for the Agency as detrimental to the organization’s efforts for the empowerment and alleviation of Palestinian refugees.
This action is of grave concern, as the United States government has prioritized the suppression of relief activity and instead utilized the innate conditions Palestinian refugees face as a political tool, treating this population similarly to that of a commodity. Risks to the UNRWA range from providing ineffective services in food insecurity, education, health, and social services for Palestinian refugees. The United States should increase its funding amounts for the UNRWA.
Policy Issue and Research Question
The UNRWA undertook a study on the needs of Palestinian refugees for the Honorable Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State for the United States Department of State. The study aimed to:
- ascertain the ways in which the United States had previously assisted Palestinian refugees through the UNRWA
- evaluate the risk posed to the Department of State by the current lack of involvement, and
- suggest to the Department of State procedures and policies to mitigate risk from this phenomenon.
The main policy concerns relevant to the Palestinian refugees’ needs are as follow:
The needs of Palestinian refugees are historically contingent.
War leading to Israel’s establishment in 1948 allowed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to be forced from their homes. i There are 500,000 UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and more than 2 million in Jordan. Palestinians in Syria have the most unsafe situation. There were roughly 560,000 registered UNRWA refugees before the Syrian Civil War. Before this war, UNRWA had 118 schools in Syria. September 2017, 101 of those schools were open. 48,000 Palestinian children were enrolled notwithstanding the conflict and violence, which has resulted in the killing of at least eighteen UNRWA employees. ii In 2003, the UN refugee agency made a registration campaign of Palestinians in Baghdad. 23,000 Palestinian refugees were counted; the true approximation was between 35,000 and 42,000.
Many left their homeland in 1948, while others moved to Iraq from elsewhere in the region, including thousands who settled there following the 1991 Gulf War. In 2003, Jordan took in 386 Palestinians with Jordanian spouses who had fled Iraq for the border camps. There were more than 350 Palestinians left; they had voiced they wanted to go to their homes in the West Bank, Gaza, and even Israel, but UNHCR had yet to find any countries to accept them or to provide temporary asylum. iii In 2003, Jordan allowed 386 Palestinians into the nation with Jordanian spouses. Most of the 427 Palestinians remaining in border camps had Iraqi resident documents. Jordan accepted almost half of the original population, according to a UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski, from a news briefing in Geneva, which is formidable. iv
Defunding assistance of Palestinian refugees by the United States leads to inhumane human rights violations.
NATO Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivered a petition at a meeting of the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. The US had announced it would stop 65 million dollars of its intended funding to the UNRWA for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Guterres expressed serious concerns over the shortfall in UNRWA funding caused by the move, which cuts US aid by more than a half. The US decision would impair the agency’s ability to preserve critical services for Palestinian refugees like that of education and health care. v
United States involvement in assisting Palestinian refugees should not be politicized.
The United States had been a well-regarded donor for UNRWA. In 2017, the US donated more than $350 million. The January 2018 installment, under the administration of US President Donald Trump, had cut in half $125 million it had originally decided to provide. Additionally, $45 million in emergency food was suspended, that of which had been originally decided as an amount December 2017. These actions all resulted after Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel alongside threats to cut aid unless Palestinian leaders agree to resume talks. In 2016, the US had donated more than $364 million to the agency. It provided the Palestinian Authority $400 million annually as well.
The Palestinian Authority is responsible for administrating parts of the West Bank. After receiving threats from the US, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the UNRWA, stating the agency assisted ‘fictitious refugees’. He additionally claimed the UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and the narrative of the right-to-return, to eliminate the State of Israel. vi
There are political, security and diplomatic repercussions for the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region through mis-communicating Israel’s involvement towards ameliorating Palestinian refugees.
The West Bank, inclusive of East Jerusalem, is a vulnerable region for Palestinian refugees. There are harsh socioeconomic conditions based upon occupation-related policies and practices imposed by the Israeli authorities. vii Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly endorsed Trump’s position, denouncing the UNRWA. Netanyahu believes the United States should reduce its payments to this organization and instead give that funding to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Interestingly enough, the Israeli armed forces prioritize positive working relations with the UNRWA, partially to benefit from maintaining humanitarian flows into Gaza that sidestep Hamas. When the US Congress had threatened to cut UNRWA funding, Israel had been a most effective advocate against cuts, as evidenced by experiences at the State Department and Capitol Hill. There have been reports in the Israeli press that the Israeli Foreign Ministry is also against any cuts to UNRWA funding, citing it would likely further exacerbate conditions in Gaza. viii
Policy and Procedure Recommendations
The UNRWA assesses that the United States, in specific the Department of State, bears considerable risk from reducing its donations towards Palestinian refugees, given its current Arab-Israeli geo-political relations. UNRWA has prepared the following recommendations for policy and procedures to mitigate this menace.
- Return United States relief amounts towards the UNRWA to the target $350 million amount. The US had previously supplied 30 percent of total funding to UNRWA, as the Agency’s largest donor. Decreasing or fully getting rid of US assistance could constrain the agency and severely limit its work, which puts great pressure on Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority. Gaza would be severely affected as well. ix
- Depoliticize Palestinian refugees from a United States-Israeli conspiracy, and instead focus upon negotiating concrete relief and security policy measures to assist the needs of Palestinian refugees. Removing the unreasonable stigma of Palestinian refugees being relevant to concessions of a previous 1948 Israeli victory and alternatively viewing Palestinian refugees as a population equally to be assisted as refugees of other nations would make negotiated comprehensive reform measures less complex and onerous for all actors.These curitization of refugees is problematic. Most are everyday people attempting to restart their lives after trauma. Viewing refugees as latent security threats, whether through the weakening of host countries or possible terrorism recruits, is an injustice to their real difficulties. x
- The United States should work with Israel and UN member nations to develop amendments for addressing issues relevant to migration, food insecurity, education, health & social services of Palestinian refugees, notwithstanding geo-political concerns. Amendments to relevant UN Resolutions, as well as UNRWA and UNHCR affiliated documents to be analyzed in conjunction with governments, non-governmental organizations, as well as transnational advocacy networks would be integral to addressing comprehensive reform as guidelines for the international community at large.
About the author:
*Ingrid Stephanie Noriega is junior specialist in International Relations, interested in human rights, democratic accountability, and conflict resolution studies as it relates to international development for the Latin America and Middle East.
i. “US Wants to Cut Money for Palestinian Refugees,” CNBC, January 15, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/15/us-wants-to-cut-money-for-palestinian-refugees.html
ii. Perry Cammack & Sarah Yerkes, “The Sharpest Cut,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 12, 2018, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/75229
iii. Astrid van Genderen Stort, Peter Kessler, ed. Vivian Tan, “Palestinians Leave Desert Camp for Baghdad,” UNHCR, May 26, 2006, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/latest/2004/5/40b4a6c04/palestinians-leave-desert-camp-baghdad.html?query=palestine%20jordan
iv. Peter Kessler, ed. Vivian Tan, “UNHCR seeks solutions for Palestinians on Iraq-Jordan border,” UNHCR, November 28, 2003, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/latest/2003/11/3fc758b52/unhcr-seeks-solutions-palestinians-iraq-jordan-border.html
v. “UN Warns of Aid Shortfall for Palestinian refugees,” NHK World, February 5, 2018, https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/20180206_10/
vi. Ibrahim Husseini, “Palestinian refugees live in fear of Trump aid cuts,” Aljazeera, January 10, 2018, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/palestinian-refugees-live-fear-trump-aid-cuts-180110121216668.html
vii. “Amid funding crunch, UN Agency seeks $800 million in lifesaving aid for Palestine refugees”, UN News Centre, January 30, 2018, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=58506#.WoCosqhKuCw
viii. Perry Cammack & Sarah Yerkes, “The Sharpest Cut,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 12, 2018, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/75229
ix. “US Wants to Cut Money for Palestinian Refugees,” CNBC, January 15, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/15/us-wants-to-cut-money-for-palestinian-refugees.html
x. Marc Lynch and Laurie Brand, “Refugees and Displacement in the Middle East,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 29, 2017, http://carnegieendowment.org/2017/03/29/refugees-and-displacement-in-middle-east-pub-68479