Sunday, November 18, 2018

What the UNRWA funding cut really means


By Naomi Kundera - August 07, 2018
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [UNRWA] [US foreign policy] [refugees]

“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” Jared Kushner, Trump Middle East aid and son-in-law, wrote in a leaked email to other White House senior officials back in January. 

“This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”
 
Last month, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) - the primary international agency for the aid of Palestinian refugees in the Near East - announced as many as 250 job cuts in the West Bank and Gaza. The heavy job losses are cited to be a consequence from the primary donor source, the United States (US), deducing a promised amount of $365 million for this year’s emergency fund to only $65 million.
 
UNRWA’s Commissioner-General described this reduction in funding as an “existential threat” to the agency. This statement has deep implications for what this funding cut really means not only for UNRWA, but for the geopolitical region at large.
 
Redefining refugees
 
UNRWA was established in 1949 after the Palestinian exodus in the aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli war. The purpose of the agency is to provide direct relief and works programs for Palestinian refugees.
 
This UN agency is unique as it contributes to the welfare of four generations of Palestinian refugees. The descendants of those who fled or were forced to leave their homes in 1948 are eligible to register as refugees, and thus for UNRWA aid.
 
Today, there are 5.3 million registered Palestinian refugees in the areas of UNRWA operation: the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
 
Ahmed*, an UNRWA employee in the Bethlehem office, confessed that there is a lot of sentiment among his colleagues that the recent layoffs are not just about losing money.
 
“The programs are changing. The management and the style of the work is changing now. So it’s not only financial… it is also a political issue,” Ahmed told Palestine Monitor.  
 
The mentality of the Palestinian people, he explained, is to take responsibility of the refugees. UNRWA gives education and health, food and living security to refugees. But “maybe they want to change it to make it simple. Just a simple value,” rather than actual, physical support. They want to make no difference between a refugee and a citizen.
 
Cutting funding to UNRWA isn’t just about the money. It’s a strategic move by the US to redefine the Palestinian refugee issue.
 
Last week, a bill was introduced to the US Congress in an attempt to recognize only 40,000 Palestinian refugees rather than the 5.3 million.

Brought to the table by Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn, the bill is meant to ensure that US money to UNRWA will go to Palestinians directly affected by the 1948 war and not their descendants. "Refugee status is not something that can be handed down from generation to generation," Lamborn stated in defense of the bill.
 

 
Ending UNRWA to “end” the refugee issue
 
“I think exactly that this is a political issue,” Mohammed, another Bethlehem office employee, said more confidently. “They want to stop the refugee issue, by the Americans and Israel… the only way to stop this issue is to stop UNRWA.”
 
When analyzing the situation in Palestine, three main issues are presented and necessary to solve in order for peace to ensue: Jerusalem, borders, and refugees.
 
In May of this year, the US graciously “gave” Jerusalem to Israel - at least rhetorically - by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the self-proclaimed capital.
 
“The second thing is the refugees. You should change their mind, their outlook of where they will live… they are not living in tents so, they are normal, like the other citizens,” Ahmed explained.
 
And as for borders, continued settlement expansion and annexation of West Bank land speaks volumes to what Israel considers to be its geographical definition.
 
“When we are born here, we only see the UNRWA services. But nowadays there is not enough services from UNRWA. So we noticed that the UNRWA will stop after a few years,” Mohammed told Palestine Monitor matter-of-factly. “That means Israeli and American policies will use UNRWA to stop the refugee issue. That’s it. It’s only a political issue.”
 
In an analysis of the leaked White House emails regarding the UNRWA cuts, Foreign Policy reported many pro-Israelis in the US see UNRWA as an organization that, “artificially kept the refugee issue alive and kindled hopes among the exiled Palestinians that they might someday return home—a possibility Israel flatly rules out.”
 
The spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Elad Strohmayer, publicly stated that Israel believes UNRWA “needs to pass from the world as it is an organization that advocates politically against Israel and perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem.”
 
On the ground realities
 
At the end of the day, more than just UNRWA employees will be affected by these budget cuts.
 
“We asked the director, 'if you kick us out only, will the problem stop? You will [continue to] give refugees services?,’” Mohammed said.
 
“He said, 'no,’ because we know it’s not about the services, it’s not money. It’s about policy.”
 
UNRWA’s emergency fund covered a vast amount of programs, including its Cash for Work and food voucher systems, mobile health clinics and mental health assistance for bedouin communities, and UNRWA schools. All of these programs and its employees will be affected.
 
Ahmed told Palestine Monitor that the Cash for Work program provided for over 8,000 families, most of which this program is their only source of income. Bedouin communities depend on the mobile clinics for all of their health concerns, and school will reach over 60 children per classroom which will significantly impact students’ learning capabilities.
 
Hundreds upon hundreds of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will lose their jobs as a direct result of the UNRWA budget cuts - all during a time of extreme economic stagnation and high unemployment.
 
Lead photo: UNRWA center in Dheisha camp, Bethlehem, covered in protest posers. Some read "We are not a slave to UNRWA" and "If UNRWA ends, then let us go back to our occupied land."

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