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U.S. Hinders Peace Efforts by Ending Aid to UN Palestinian Refugee Agency

After significantly reducing funding for Palestinian refugees and organizations this past year, the Trump administration has now declared that the United States will completely cease funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The agency provides crucial humanitarian aid for millions of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and for Palestinian refugees in various countries.

Jared Kushner, the top White House adviser on the Middle East, pushed for the aid cuts and told the New York Times that “Nobody is entitled to America’s foreign aid.” While no one may be “entitled” to foreign aid, the humanitarian crisis in Palestine should certainly be a compelling reason to provide aid. In part, the cut in aid is a response to the Palestinian Authority’s angry reaction to the U.S. declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017. But Kushner has also indicated that cutting aid will give the U.S. and Israel leverage in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said that “The U.S. administration is demonstrating the use of cheap blackmail as a political tool. The Palestinian people and leadership will not be intimidated and will not succumb to coercion.” Furthermore, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont noted that “It is the Palestinian people, virtual prisoners in an increasingly volatile conflict, who will most directly suffer the consequences of this callous and ill-advised attempt to respond to Israel's security concerns.”

[Photo: Residents of Gaza without electricity during winter. Source:  Reuters ]

[Photo: Residents of Gaza without electricity during winter. Source: Reuters]

According to a 2017 Human Rights Watch article, around 70% of the 1.9 million people living in Gaza rely on humanitarian assistance. Conflicts and disagreements between Fatah and Hamas result in periodic shutdowns of Gaza’s only power plant, which impacts the area’s water supply and hospitals’ ability to operate. The Israeli government imposes restrictions on Gaza that hinder medical access and educational and economic opportunities, effectively keeping Gaza residents in an inescapable cycle of poverty.

Beyond the humanitarian crisis, the UNRWA funded programs that enabled Israelis and Palestinians to build relations, particularly by providing opportunities for Israeli and Palestinian children to engage in activities together. Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to Senator Leahy,warned that “you don’t advance the cause of peace by cutting off programs that are designed to promote tolerance, understanding and address shared problems.”

[Photo: UNRWA employees and their families protest job cuts announced by the agency outside Gaza City in July 2018. Source:  AFP/Said Khatib ]

[Photo: UNRWA employees and their families protest job cuts announced by the agency outside Gaza City in July 2018. Source: AFP/Said Khatib]

Alongside the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the move to cut off aid to Palestinians reflects the power structure in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump administration is seemingly able to work unilaterally to strengthen the Israeli government and cause. While Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar were able to pull together $150 million for the UNRWA, without U.S. aid the organization will be severely underfunded. The U.S. is choosing political advantage over the lives of millions of Palestinians, and is ending programs that promote understanding and tolerance between Israelis and Palestinians. The U.S. is seeking a solution by way of force and by pigeon-holing a government and people, which will only breed greater instability and conflict.