On January 2, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley signaled that the Trump administration does not intend to continue funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides education, healthcare and other essential services to Palestinian refugees “until the Palestinians agree to come back to negotiation table.” Haley’s comments came on the heels of the December passage of United Nations General Assembly Resolution ES-10/L.22, which declared “null and void” any efforts to change the status of Jerusalem.
Any doubts about whether Haley’s statement constituted a deliberate policy marker were dispelled when President Donald Trump followed up hours later with two tweets of his own.
The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 1, 2018
...peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
It’s no secret that the Trump administration is itching to cut U.S. foreign assistance globally—as was clear when the administration made good on the Pakistan bit of Trump’s tweet by freezing most U.S. assistance to that country. But while “I get no respect!” was comedy gold for the comedian Rodney Dangerfield during the 1980s, as a template for foreign policy it leaves much to be desired. The administration is reportedly debating whether to freeze a payment to UNRWA due by mid-January. However, before making draconian cuts to UNRWA, the Trump administration would do well to consider the consequences.
UNRWA was established in 1949, in the aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli war, to provide assistance for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled the conflict. Today, UNRWA provides assistance and services to more than 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The United States is the UNRWA’s biggest donor, with an annual contribution of $300–400 million dollars in recent years, constituting more than 20 percent of UNRWA’s annual budget, which already faces persistent budget shortfalls because of underfunded pledges. A complete freeze in U.S. payments to UNRWA could cripple the organization.
Despite Trump’s threat to cut assistance to any country that voted for the UN General Assembly resolution, Arab countries unanimously supported it. Cuts in funding to Egypt and Jordan could jeopardize strategic security partnerships, so the Trump administration may see Palestinian assistance—to UNRWA, in particular—as an appealing target. But as an international humanitarian and service-provision agency with no political standing, UNRWA is unaffiliated with either the Palestinian Authority or the Palestine Liberation Organization.
And while the political effects on the Palestinian leadership of cuts to UNRWA funding are speculative, the humanitarian effects are not. Seven hundred UNRWA schools enroll more than 500,000 children, while its health clinics and food distribution sites service roughly half of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents. There is neither an alternative service provider which could quickly step into this void, nor an alternative source of funding to make up the gap. Thus, a sharp, unanticipated reduction in U.S. funding levels would jeopardize the education of tens of thousands of Palestinian schoolchildren and further harm already dire economic conditions in Gaza.
UNRWA cuts would have implications beyond Gaza and the West Bank, at a moment of historic turbulence in the Levant. Both Lebanon and Jordan have struggled to cope with the fiscal and political consequences resulting from the presence of nearly 1 million and more than 650,000 Syrian refugees, respectively. There are nearly 500,000 UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and more than 2 million in Jordan. Even assuming the recent lower estimate from the Lebanese Central Administration of Statistics of 175,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, a sharp reduction in UNRWA services would be most unwelcome news.
Of course, it is the Palestinians in Syria who are in the most precarious situation. There were roughly 560,000 registered UNRWA refugees before the civil war began, with numbers difficult to calculate today. Prior to the conflict, UNRWA operated 118 schools in Syria. Remarkably, as of last September, 101 of those schools remained open, enrolling some 48,000 Palestinian children despite violence which has killed at least eighteen UNRWA employees.
Certainly, UNRWA hasn’t escaped controversy. Some pro-Israel organizations, as well as members of the U.S. Congress, have accused UNRWA textbooks of demonizing Israel. The organization’s relations with Hamas in Gaza have also come under scrutiny. Israel has long complained that the existence of UNRWA—as an organization dedicated solely to the assistance of Palestinians—exemplifies a systematic anti-Israeli bias in the UN system.
Last Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly endorsed Trump’s position, calling UNRWA “an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem, and perpetuates also the narrative of the so-called right of return, whose goal is the elimination of Israel.” He called for UNRWA to be “shut down” saying the United States should gradually scale back its payments to the organization and instead funnel that money toward the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
But behind the scenes, the story is different. The Israeli armed forces prioritize positive working relations with UNRWA, in part to maintain humanitarian flows into Gaza that bypass Hamas. In the past, when the U.S. Congress threatened to cut UNRWA funding, Israel was—discreetly—one of the most effective advocates against cuts, as both authors know from our experiences at the State Department and on Capitol Hill. And there have been reports in the Israeli press that the Israeli Foreign Ministry is also against any cuts to UNRWA funding, as it would likely further exacerbate conditions in Gaza.
Indeed, the essential services that UNRWA provides remove the burden of Israel having to provide them. The Trump administration has made improving relations with Israel a Middle East priority. But should conditions sharply worsen in Gaza, Israel, as well as Egypt, would be forced to deal with the consequences.
While cuts to UNRWA risk dramatic humanitarian consequences, Trump need not address Palestinian assistance with a sledgehammer. The Taylor Force Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed on December 5, 2017, would, if signed into law, prohibit the United States from funding the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it ends payments to terrorists and their families. This approach, too, could deal another blow to the PA, which is struggling to remain solvent. It would also provide easy fodder for Hamas to exploit as it tries to win support of the Palestinian public and capitalize on U.S. policy shifts. But at least the legislation has the virtue of recognizing the dangers in targeting the Palestinian people, by creating exceptions for humanitarian projects such as the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, wastewater projects, and child vaccinations.
Whatever Trump decides to do, if he is serious about restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—as farfetched as that notion may seem—punishing the Palestinian people hardly seems the best way to do so.