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UNRWA Protests Trump's Budget Cuts

By Austin Mistretta 

In the midst of a diplomatic spat with the Palestinians over the relocation of America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, President Trump announced last month that the United States would drastically slash the amount of aid it provides to Palestinian refugees.

For intermediaries like the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), that means serious financial woes. UNRWA stands to lose more than $300 million — around 83 percent of the money the United States was originally supposed to provide in the 2018 fiscal year.

In response, UNRWA and its defenders have been making appearances around Washington in a bid to garner support for their cause.

At a Feb. 8 briefing on Capitol Hill, Elizabeth Campbell, director of UNRWA’s representative office in D.C., questioned the “sharp shift in policy in terms of the way in which foreign assistance normally has been provided,” noting that “for a long time, the U.S. government has been the leading bilateral humanitarian donor globally.”

UNRWA advocates hold a briefing in the Gold Room at the Rayburn House Office Building. (Photo: Austin Mistretta)

Since the organization’s establishment in 1949 following the previous year’s Arab-Israeli conflict, America has indeed been its top donor, dispensing aid to millions of Palestinian refugees.

Today, UNRWA also provides health care to 9 million patients and education to 500,000 young students. Trump’s funding cuts could put this secondary mission in jeopardy as well, which, according to Campbell, would have dire consequences.

“We all know from our own experience here in the U.S. that when institutions, or educational institutions, start to deteriorate or decline, it’s not something from which you bounce back quickly,” she warned.

Furthermore, Campbell and her peers voiced concern about the effects Trump’s budget reduction would have on the overall political stability of the region.

“There’s two dynamics that really set off violence and instability, traditionally, inside the Palestinian territories,” explained Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“One is a political horizon: When there is a political horizon, when there are negotiations ongoing, when people feel like there might be something coming down the pipe that actually gives them hope, the situation tends to be better…. The other is the situation on the ground, which obviously an institution like UNRWA does a lot to try to alleviate.”

If, he said, “the politics are going really bad, you want to be extra focused on what’s going on on the ground. Because when both those things are going bad at the same time, that’s when you end up with things like the Gaza conflict in 2014, or the other conflicts in Gaza over the last 10 years, or the second Intifada.”

With the relationship between Israel and Palestine having steadily deteriorated in recent years and particularly after Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, Goldenberg lamented that “this is absolutely the worst possible time to be doing something like cutting UNRWA’s support in half.”

From left: Scott Anderson, UNRWA’s West Bank director; Elizabeth Campbell, UNRWA’s D.C. Representative; Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security; and moderator Dylan Williams, vice president of government affairs for J Street, discuss President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to Palestinian refugees. (Photo: Austin Mistretta)

The day before the Hill briefing, the Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted a similar panel discussion in which Campbell and her colleague Scott Anderson — a retired U.S. Army major and UNRWA’s West Bank director — advocated on behalf of their organization.

“If UNRWA is not funded,” Anderson said, the result would be that “we no longer provide the education and the healthcare to the community, and things start to backslide.”

Children look out from a window during U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s October 2014 visit with internally displaced persons at the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Collective Centre in Gaza. (Photo: UN / Eskinder Debebe)

The risk of that happening is one the Trump administration must be willing to take if it follows through on its threats to withhold UNRWA’s money. According to the experts, the ramifications could be long-lasting and severe — not just for the region, but for America’s national interest as well.

As Anderson put it, “It takes far longer to recover than to slide back.”

Austin Mistretta is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat.



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