Over the last few weeks this crisis has escalated as the US has linked the return of aid to UNRWA to a variety of issues ranging from Donald Trump accusing the Palestinians of disrespecting the US to his demands of the Palestinians to re-enter peace talks, according to CNN and Deutsche Welle. Trump’s decision to hold back the contribution puts food, educational and health services for the Palestinian refugees at risk and might affect the Middle East’s already-fragile security.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was established by the UN General Assembly in December 1949 to provide direct relief and work programs to Palestinian refugees in order to prevent starvation and distress and to further conditions of peace and stability. Its mandate is directly linked to the implementation of resolution 194 that states “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return”. Palestinian refugees are Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in modern-day Israel by Jewish militias following the 1948 war and the establishment of Israel as well as their descendants. UNRWA was conceived to service the needs of 700.000 – 750.000 Palestinian refugees in 1950. Today, roughly five million Palestinian refugees are eligible for UNRWA services. The services contain the fields of education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance. The agency operates in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
The UNRWA is a donor-dependent organization. According to their own website, 92% of UNRWA’s yearly budget comes from voluntary contributions from UN member states, and regional organizations, including the EU, among which the United States is the largest donor. Of the UNRWA’s $1 billion budget in 2017, the US’ total contribution was US$ 364 million, while the EU contributed US$ 143 million. The remaining funds are received from the regular budget of the UN, which is exclusively used for administrative costs, as well as smaller contributions from international organizations and private donations. According to DW, the first US installment for the 2018 budget of US$ 125 million was reduced to US$ 65, holding back the remaining US$ 60 million. To circumvent the US’ decision, the EU agreed on extra US$ 133 million to UNRWA and US$ 22 million for investments in the West Bank and Gaza on January 31st, according to the Independent.
According to UNRWA, any reduction in funding has a significant impact. At stake is basic education for 525.000 boys and girls in 700 UNRWA schools, emergency food and cash assistance to 1.7 million people as well as access to primary health care for 3 million people. Such cuts thus leave very few options for Palestinians that have suffered under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, under blockade in the Gaza Strip, or under political and economic instability across the rest of the region. It would put undue and unexpected stress on the social services of the countries that host the refugees, including the failing economies of Syria and the Gaza Strip and the fragile economy of the West Bank.
It is in this light that any cuts to the funding and thus services of the UNRWA could have region-wide repercussions. Any cutting of financial aid and Trump’s rhetoric does not only put vital health, educational and food services for Palestinian refugees at risk, but it also deepens tensions within the conflict and affects regional security.