Palestinians speak out about devastating US cuts to the UN refugee agency: 'We are already so desperate'

Families fear they will not be able to survive if United Nations halts aid to refugees after the US slashes funding 

Bel Trew
Monday 03 September 2018 20:41 BST

Palestinians have expressed their fear and dismay at the decision by the United States to cut funding to the UN’s Palestine refugee programme (UNRWA), warning it could see the total collapse of communities as well as any hopes of a peace deal.

Senior Palestinian officials, former UN employees in Gaza and families told The Independent they feared the sudden financial shortfall could not only see job cuts, the closure of UN-supported schools and health centres, but all negotiations off the cards.

President Donald Trump‘s administration, which until last year was the biggest contributor to UNRWA, announced on Friday that it would no longer make any contributions to the “irredeemably flawed operation”.

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

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later said the move was an “assault” against his people and in “defiance of UN resolutions”.

Top Palestinian officials confirmed to The Independent that Mr Abbas would be appealing to “all UN bodies” to challenge the decision which was the final nail in the coffin of the peace process.

“We going to go the UN and to appeal to all the agencies, we will find alternate funding. The US has to be held accountable,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) executive committee member.

“The US is dismantling the peace process systematically and destroying all hope of peace, while doing the bidding of Israel. It is the unilateral attempt to destroy all the components of any [political] solution. They have destroyed their own credibility and people’s lives,” she added.

Cracking the code: Young Palestinians take hold of their futures at Gaza's tech hub

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat echoed her words saying that the American administration had invalidated future peace talks by “preempting, prejudging issues reserved for permanent status” negotiations.

UNRWA was established in 1949 to care for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced from or fled their homes during the 1948 conflict which surrounded the creation of Israel. It says it currently supports more than five million registered Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

In 2015, the agency, which is almost entirely funded by voluntary donations from UN member states, nearly closed all its schools due to shortfalls. It carried over a deficit of tens of millions of dollars last year

The US had been the single largest donor, providing $364m (£283m) in 2017 and funding almost 30 per cent of its operations in the region.

In January Mr Trump announced a $300m funding freeze crippling some of UNRWA’s activities and forcing it to lay off hundreds of people.

Mr Trump, who has also claimed his administration will soon deliver a peace agreement for the region dubbed the “deal of the century”, first threatened to cut off aid over what he called the Palestinians unwillingness to negotiate with Israel.

The Trump administration later backed Israel in accusing UNRWA of perpetuating the Middle East conflict by maintaining the idea that many Palestinians are refugees with a right to return to homes in what is now Israel.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, last month claimed that UNRWA had exaggerated the number of Palestinian refugees.

Israel welcomed the US move.

“Consolidating the refugee status of Palestinians is one of the problems that perpetuates the conflict,” an official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said. The premier later said that UNRWA was formed “not to absorb the refugees but to perpetuate them”.

On Monday Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat threatened to expel UNRWA from Jerusalem altogether, local media reported. He accused the agency of failing those in its care and instead inciting terror activity.

Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman, said the agency would try to close a $217m (£170m) shortfall, or it would have a “profound, widespread, dramatic and unpredictable” impact.

“Some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in one of the most volatile regions on the planet is being put under terrible pressure,” he added.

In Gaza, Palestinians rely on UN aid to survive, largely due to decade-long blockades imposed by Israel and Egypt. The 1.8 million population of the Strip, which is just 25 miles long, suffers from one of the highest jobless rates in the world.

They also endure long daily power cuts and shortages in food, clean water and medical supplies.

Residents told The Independent the funding cut would have a “catastrophic and explosive” impact on the already impoverished communities. They said the US was effectively telling Palestinians to give up their legal rights in exchange for food and water.

“It will be like an explosion within the Palestinian communities … A lot of families live and rely on this aid, in the form of food parcels, medicines for the sick, education, salaries,” said Ismael Altalaa, who worked for the UN’s emergency program in Gaza, until he lost his job this summer due to cuts.

“The Americans are basically telling us that we must give up our legal, geographic and religious rights in exchange for money and food. We must forget the massacres, the killings, the displacements, the arrests, the violation of human rights for Trump’s so-called deal of the century,” he added.

We depend on food parcels, we are already so desperate

Alaa, mother-of-two, Gaza

Alaa, 28 a mother-of-two in a refugee camp in north Gaza said she feared her family would starve and her children would never go to school.

“We depend on food parcels, we are already so desperate,” she said. “This aid is often the only income for Palestinian families and the main source to feed their families,” she added.

In the West Bank, Mahmoud Mubarak, director of committees that run 19 refugee camps home to some half a million Palestinians, warned of “very serious repercussions”. Mr Mubarak said committee representatives would meet on Tuesday to discuss their options.

In Jordan, which is host to more than 2 million of the over 5 million registered refugees, Palestinians said they would not be able to make ends meet. ”Our country is gone and now they’re coming after our livelihoods,” said Zeinab al-Ardaba, a resident of Jordan’s Baqaa camp.

Jordanian authorities meanwhile warned that the US decision would only fuel radicalism and harm prospects for Middle East peace.

The European Union, the second largest donor to UNRWA, has pledged to keep it afloat. This week Germany announced it would increase its funding.

Mr Trump had already sparked fury among Palestinians after moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognising it as the capital of Israel.

Jerusalem is a contested city claimed by both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Many countries, including the UK, believe its status should be determined by both sides in a final peace agreement.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in