The US is to withhold £47m in aid destined for the UN relief agency for Palestinians, a move that could prove “catastrophic” for the humanitarian organisation and for the half a million refugee children it supports.
The decision comes two weeks after President Donald Trump complained that America receives “no appreciation or respect” in return for its aid to the Palestinians.
But the move has been strongly criticised by NGOs and politicians around the world including the agency itself, UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which told The Ferret that its work to support Palestinian refugees would be severely impacted.
The US funds almost 30 per cent of the agency’s work overall – the agency is funded solely by UN members – and gave £267m to UNRWA last year. Its funding is being withheld “for future consideration”, a US official told Reuters news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The US said it will provide £43m in aid to UNRWA but will hold back a further £47m. The money withheld is part of this year’s first instalment.
UNRWA told The Ferret that any cut in humanitarian funding for the Palestinians could be “catastrophic” for refugee children scattered across the region.
The agency educates more than 500,000 Palestinian children in 711 schools, with 20,000 people employed in its education department alone.
UNRWA said the impact of aid being stopped would be “profound and widespread”.
The NGO was set up in 1949 to provide humanitarian aid in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced in the Middle East.
It was initially intended to be a temporary agency, but has continued to provide support for Palestinian refugees including education for children.
UNRWA mainly provides services for Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
"I think it’s important to realise that Unrwa - unlike the World Food programme, say - can’t just deliver a third less education to children, if we get a third less of our budget. You are either educating children or you’re not. So, it would pose some serious question marks over the viability of our programmes." Chris, UNRWA spokesman
Chris Gunness, a UNRWA spokesman, said: “I think it’s important to realise that UNRWA – unlike the World Food Programme, say – can’t just deliver a third less education to children, if we get a third less of our budget. You are either educating children or you’re not. So, it would pose some serious question marks over the viability of our programmes.”
Gunness said that a financial crisis in 2015 nearly resulted in the suspension of education completely.
“We nearly had to postpone the start of our school year. That sent terrible shockwaves through refugee communities, because for them an education is a vehicle towards a life of dignity and prosperity.
“So when you’re living under blockade in Gaza, or in the war-zones of Syria, or indeed in refugee camps in Lebanon and in Jordan, the threat of having education withheld is enormously problematic.”
Gunness said that UNRWA had been in touch with all of its major donors to see if any funding gap could be bridged.
The biggest tranche of its education programme is primary education for half a million children, including around 270,000 children living under blockade in Gaza.
Gunness said: “A solid primary education is mainly what our education department does. The World Bank has praised our education and said that when kids leave our schools – grades 1 to 9 they do – they are a year ahead of students from comparable government schools around the region.”
He added: “As well as that we also have about 10,000 children and youths in vocational training centres. We prepare youth for the job market, which of course, is problematic in Gaza where there is soaring unemployment so it’s difficult to educate these children, when they find themselves frustrated, and on dole queues.
“But where there is the possibility of an escape from the poverty trap, and a dignified life, then vocational training can be very useful.”
Nearly the entire population of the Gaza Strip receives aid from UNRWA. The agency acts almost as a de facto government there and is responsible for the majority of schools, healthcare facilities and some public services.
"The move will have devastating consequences for vulnerable Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, including hundreds of thousands of refugee children in the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria who depend on the agency for their education." Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Critics of the aid cut included Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who urged the US government to reverse its decision.
“The move will have devastating consequences for vulnerable Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, including hundreds of thousands of refugee children in the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria who depend on the agency for their education,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.
“It will also deny their parents a social safety net that helps them to survive, and undermine the UN agency’s ability to respond in the event of another flare-up in the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.”
Jordan, which has more than two million registered Palestinian refugees, hosts the largest number of people who are provided with aid by UNRWA.
The UN agency has never been involved in peace negotiations and focuses on humanitarian efforts throughout the Middle East, in areas where the largest numbers of displaced Palestinians are concentrated.
Israel has been in regular dispute with UNRWA as it rejects the Palestinian demand for a right of return for refugees displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But the organisation is internationally recognised for its humanitarian efforts and it plays a major role in the region.
Palestinians are the only refugee group whose support is not handled by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
On Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sharply attacked Trump’s Middle East peace efforts, saying he would not accept any peace plan from the US after it recognised Jerusalem last year as Israel’s capital.
He accused Israel of putting an end to the 1994 Oslo Accords, which began the peace process.
Cover image: Donald Trump | CC | Gage Skidmore | https://flic.kr/p/EPd159