US Slashes Funding to UN Relief and Works Agency, a Primary Palestinian Advocate
The US Department of State announced plans to drastically cut its annual funding to the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on Tuesday. Since 1949, the organization has provided education, infrastructure, and health and social services to displaced Palestinian refugees and their descendants throughout the Levant.
The new budget will withhold 65 million out of 125 million US-pledged dollars – down from the country’s 350-million-dollar donation in 2017. The US has long served as UNRWA’s primary donor (in 2016, American funding comprised a third of its capital), and Tuesday’s move – plunging the organization into an unprecedented financial crisis – sparked fear and concern from its agents and constituents alike.
“After decades of generous support, dramatic reduction of US funding to @UNRWA results in most critical financial situation in history of Agency. I call on member states of the United Nations to take a stand & demonstrate to Palestine Refugees that their rights & future matter” UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said through Twitter.
Krähenbühl warned that insufficient funds would leave upwards of 500,000 students across 700 UNRWA schools vulnerable to disease, poverty, and extremism. In conjunction with his appeal to international civil society – imploring its members to make an ideological stand against UNRWA detractors – Krähenbühl implored UN states to bridge the monetary hole opened by the US.
On Wednesday, Belgium promised to donate 19 million euros to UNRWA, albeit in installments over a three-year period.
During her Tuesday press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert explained the US’s rationale for decreasing its financing of UNRWA.
“[The cutback in funding] is not aimed at punishing anyone. The United States Government and the Trump administration believe that there should be more so-called burden sharing to go around,” Nauert said. “The United States has been, in the past, the largest single donor to UNRWA. We would like other countries – in fact, other countries that criticize the United States for what they believe to be our position vis-a-vis the Palestinians, other countries that have criticized us – to step forward and actually help with UNRWA, to do more.”
Nauert added that the US may disburse the remaining 60 million dollars if UNRWA undergoes satisfactory reforms. The spokeswoman, however, declined to delineate a form or timetable for such changes.
On occasion, various outlets have criticized the organization’s willingness to accommodate Hamas in the Gaza Strip and have accused it of enabling a cyclical culture of victimhood rather than acting as an efficient agent of bilateral peace.
The Department of State’s policy decision exists within the purview of the Trump administration’s partial, heavy-handed approach to Palestinian-Israeli peace accords. Despite Nauert’s refutations, political commentators have questioned if the action constitutes a reaction to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem and the Palestinian-backed UN vote that subsequently condemned it.
Just weeks after Trump identified a so-called discrepancy between US contributions to Palestine and instances of productive Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, the Department of State moved swiftly to punish a primary advocate of human rights within and beyond the West Bank and Gaza. In spite of its shortcomings, UNRWA performs irrefutably necessary services on the local level, and high-level political jockeying will hurt no one but displaced and vulnerable refugees.
In face of looming prospects of regional insecurity, UN Secretary‑General António Guterres urged the international community to persevere, to continue to pursue its human development goals, and to ultimately seek an amicable solution that satisfies both Palestine and Israel.
“We must press for a return to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians,” Guterres said. “There is no alternative to a two‑state solution. Recent signals of diminishing support for this undermine moderates and empower radicals. There is no plan B."