Last September, under the false pretence that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was perpetuating the Palestinian refugee crisis, the US withdrew more than $300 million (€267 million) in funding from the agency.
At a time when Gaza’s economy was in “freefall,” according to the World Bank, other countries including Ireland, Germany and other European Union member states, acted quickly to make up most of the shortfall. Though their actions ensured the financial situation remained the same, something significant had changed. Humanitarian aid had become politicised.
Over a 40-year period, the EU has established itself as a key strategic partner for the UNRWA, and its contribution to the agency’s cause remains significant. The bloc is now the largest donor to the UNRWA, pledging a further $93 million (€83 million) to the agency’s 2019 budget in late February. The EU’s representative in Jerusalem, Ralph Tarraf, has said that support for the UNRWA will “remain one of the pillars of our Middle East peace policy.” its latest contribution will help to preserve access to education for over 500,000 children and provide primary health care for more than 3.5 million patients.
Nevertheless, the kind of politicisation exemplified by the US’s decision to withdraw funding now looms large for organisations like the UNRWA. The agency plays a vitally important role in safeguarding the well-being of the 5 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. More than providing essential services, including supporting medical centres and funding schools, the UNRWA represents the hope for a better future for the Palestinian diaspora, and the determination to make it a reality.
The story of the Palestinian people is one of astonishing resilience and resourcefulness. Despite the dire conditions in which they are forced to live - especially in the Gaza Strip - children still go to school in clean clothes, doctors and teachers continue to work, and civilians find increasingly inventive ways to make a living and care for their families. Though I have been a supporter of Palestinian refugees for many years, having lived and worked among them with the UNRWA in Gaza for a decade, I continue to be amazed and humbled by their ability to show creativity and resolve in times of desperate hardship.
But to endure is not to prosper and fortitude alone will not bring about a long-term, sustainable solution to this crisis. That is why the decision taken by the EU, the Arab States and Japan to support these people by contributing more funding should be celebrated. Not only did they choose to assist a population that is increasingly marginalised and forgotten on the world stage, but they did so against the clear wishes of the world’s most powerful and influential country and the increasingly hostile administration that governs it. This is to their eternal credit.
Nevertheless, the Palestinian refugee situation remains serious. Nikolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, warned last month that “the spectres of violence and radicalism in the occupied Palestinian territory is growing” and “the prospect of sustainable peace is fading day by day.” It’s no coincidence that as funding to the UNRWA has been cut, extremism has risen. The organisation is a major stabilising force in the region, and without the education, health care, social services, infrastructure and emergency assistance it provides, there is always the risk that fanaticism and fundamentalism increase.
There remains the constant fear that funding will drop off yet again or that, in a volatile geopolitical landscape, conditions will worsen. A number of issues are exerting a heavy toll on those in Gaza and the West Bank, but there is always a great deal of uncertainty and a permanent solution has not yet been found. In December 1949, the UNRWA was established as a short-term solution to the Palestinian Nakba (or “catastrophe”); now it has evolved into permanent support, financial and otherwise, for Palestinians dispersed across the globe.
When the US cuts to funding were announced, the UNRWA Commissioner-General, Pierre Krahenbuhl, said that millions of Palestinian refugees could not simply “be wished away.” There are now more of those refugees than there are people in Ireland, and many of them are stateless and burdened increasingly with restrictions on their freedom of movement. The US, the EU and other countries must invest sustainably in peace and a permanent solution. It is the only way to guarantee that Palestinians can once again live reasonably and with dignity.
Karen Abuzayd is an American diplomat and a former Deputy and Commissioner-General of the UNRWA