In mid-January, U.S. president Donald Trump announced that he is cutting funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). This announcement came hot on the heels of what has become known as "the Trump Declaration", the statement Trump made in December that the U.S. embassy will be moved to Jerusalem.
This declaration triggered immediate outrage, protests and outbreaks of unrest across the Arab world. If the Trump Declaration caused an earthquake, the UNRWA funding cut was the dramatic aftershock threatening the existence of many thousands of Palestinians.
UNRWA is funded by voluntary contributions from U.N. member states. The U.S. has consistently provided one-third of UNRWA's annual funding, and will now indefinitely withhold $65-million (~R786-million) of its planned $125-million (~R1.5-billion) in financial contributions.
These cuts will have clear, immediate and calamitous consequences for a large number of Palestinians relying on aid and assistance from the U.N. Because of the sudden nature of the funding cut, UNRWA did not have the opportunity to prepare or plan for operating on a shoestring budget in 2018. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Niki Haley has threatened a full aid cut.
UNRWA is one of the most dynamic and largest U.N. agencies. It has provided a lifeline to Palestinian refugees located not only in the occupied territories but also in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. UNRWA has a long and interesting history – it was established as a subsidiary organ of the U.N. general assembly in 1949 to carry out relief and work programmes for Palestinian refugees.
The agency started its work in 1950, and initially supported approximately 75,000 Palestinian refugees. Today, about 5-million Palestinian refugees are eligible for UNRWA services. UNRWA is a unique U.N. agency, in the sense that it focuses exclusively on Palestinian refugees. In terms of its ability to deliver effective humanitarian assistance, it can be described as a flagship agency of the U.N.
After the Trump Declaration, it became clear that the U.S. can no longer be a mediator in the peace process.
To qualify for UNRWA aid, one has to meet the definition of a Palestinian refugee. Palestinian refugees are defined as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period June 1, 1946 to May 15, 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict." The category includes descendants of Palestinian refugee males.
Trump's recent actions caused a seismic shift in Middle East politics and the peace process. Trump justified his far-reaching decision in a series of tweets by saying: "We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect".
The tweets confirmed the U.S. tendency to provide conditional aid.
It is not clear exactly what Trump would regard as "appreciation or respect" in this context. If he expects Palestinian leaders to yield to his demands regarding the peace process, he is violating the ethos of the United Nations. He seems unable to distinguish between the nature of U.S. aid and the nature of U.N. aid.
After the Trump Declaration, it became clear that the U.S. can no longer be a mediator in the peace process. And after the funding cut, the U.S. has firmly placed itself on the side of Israel. Trump's actions further raise the question of whether the U.S. can unilaterally renege on its undertakings towards the United Nations.
It can further be argued that withholding the humanitarian aid which a group has a legitimate expectation to violates international law. Tens of thousands of children are guaranteed to suffer as a result of the closure of schools run by UNRWA and the insecurity caused by lack of food and basic commodities. This constitutes a violation of the almost universally ratified U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I interviewed UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness in East Jerusalem last week. He explained that UNRWA has a robust policy to continue to deliver the same number and quality of services in spite of the cuts. To make ends meet, UNRWA launched a global fundraising campaign. Turkey has already increased its funding and Belgium has pledged to donate 19-million euro to UNRWA.
The daily life of the children of Palestine cannot be at the mercy of the unpredictability of the peace process.
And in early February a senior cleric and former Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, emphasised the responsibility of Arab and Islamic countries to fund UNRWA. The Palestinian Authority has called for February 15 to be considered a day of "media solidarity" with Palestinian refugees and UNRWA.
Arguments that the U.N.'s presence in the occupied Palestinian territories perpetuates the crisis and indirectly perpetuates the occupation do no hold water. The daily life of the children of Palestine cannot be at the mercy of the unpredictability of the peace process.
UNRWA named its fundraising campaign "Dignity Is Priceless". By politicising humanitarian aid, the U.S. is not only further destabilising the most volatile region on earth, but chipping away at its own remaining dignity.
Mia Swart is the research director, HSRC and visiting fellow, Brookings Doha Centre