On September 3, as we celebrated Labor Day in Vermont, the jobs of more than 30,000 Palestinians who work for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency  (UNRWA) were put at risk by the Trump administration’s sudden cancellation of U.S. funding to the agency.  The potential loss of Palestinian employment, largely in UNRWA health facilities, schools and social services across the 5 regions in which the agency operates could decimate the jobs and services on which Palestinian refugees depend, because their employment opportunities are severely limited by the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and their status as less than second class citizen/refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.

Approximately 5.4 million displaced Palestinian refugees live outside of what is now Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). Although some have settled permanently in countries around the world,  1.5 million live in over-crowded refugee camps  in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon,  Gaza, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the rest in dire conditions in these 5 regions where UNRWA operates.

Without massive support from other countries and donors to make up the funding shortfall, Palestinian doctors, nurses, midwives, teachers, administrators, and support personnel will be unable to feed their families and will slide further down the slope of poverty, and the indignities to which they are subjected on a daily basis. The health of millions of  Palestinians who receive high quality services from UNRWA clinics will quickly deteriorate, leading not only to public health crises among Palestinians but among host populations in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, not to mention Israel, since infectious diseases do not recognize borders.  The defunding of UNRWA schools, whose high quality is not in question, could leave large numbers of students idle and increasingly angry; with education, the only possible route out of poverty, barred to them,  and no work prospects, they would be subject to the rhetoric of extremist groups.  As the letter from 102 U.S. House members said, “Deliberately exacerbating the hardship of the Palestinian people and reducing the ability of their government to function would only contribute to the benefit of those who reject engagement. Extremist and anti-Israel groups would be all too eager to fill in the vacuum, deepening their hold on the region…”

UNRWA was established by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) in 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees, more than 750,000 of whom were forcibly expelled or fled their homes in 1948 when Israel was created.  Although it is the responsibility of an occupying power (Israel, in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza) to provide health care, education and other basic services to an occupied population, Israel has consistently abdicated this responsibility to the international community. And because for 69 years there has been no solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate, most recently extending it until 30 June 2020.  To date the U.S. has been a generous supporter of UNRWA, supplying almost one third of its total budget.

We might ask why is the U.S. supporting Palestinians? While US military aid to Israel ($3 billion plus per  year)  far surpasses its aid to UNRWA — $5.2 billion since 1994), still this balancing act to some degree keeps the region from devolving further into chaos, which would threaten U.S. and Israeli interests in the entire region.

John H. Davis was the head of UNRWA from 1959 to 1963. He described the agency as “one of the prices—and perhaps the cheapest—that the international community was paying for not having to solve with equity the political problems of the refugees.”   This statement describes the political contradictions that UNRWA continues to embody today. Davis understood that the lives of Palestinian refugees are intimately tied to U.S. support for Israel —  which is why this funding withdrawal has generated concern even among mainstream American politicians.  It is also clear that while UNRWA provides no solution to the ongoing displacement of millions of Palestinians, to simply and swiftly end the humanitarian support it provides is also no solution.

According to The Times of Israel, even Netanyahu privately warned against withdrawing U.S. aid to UNRWA, fearing that increased joblessness and closing of schools will lead to increased unrest and violence and threaten Israel’s security.

To their credit, our Vermont Congressional delegation officially objected to this action in letters to the Administration, Congress, USAID and the Department of State, and we should thank them for this, as well as encourage them to keep up the pressure to restore funding.

One of the most, if not the most important of  Palestinian demands for a negotiated settlement with Israel is the right of return to their homeland, provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognized in international refugee law, the law of nationality and the law of state responsibility.

Although Israel’s admission as a member to the UN was made conditional on implementation of Resolution 194, the right of return for Palestinians,  Israel has never done so, arguing that this would undermine the Jewish character of the state.

But the current administration has a creative response to this prickly issue – to simply and unilaterally change the UN definition of “refugee” from one that includes descendants of refugees to one limited only to those people who themselves were expelled from their lands. Not only does this conveniently eliminate the need for the right of return, as many 1948 refugees are elderly or dead (numbering from 40,000 to 500,000) but it means that millions of Palestinians registered as refugees with UNRWA would no longer be eligible for services, hence a reason for the U.S. to slash funding.

Jared Kushner, in internal emails quoted in Foreign Policy recently said “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA.”   While hardly “honest and sincere,” this strategy provides a typically twisted logic for defunding and disruption.  It is yet another attempt at erasure of the Palestinian people, ignoring them not only as refugees, but as human beings, “born free and equal in dignity and rights,” as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1.

Please contact Senators Leahy and Sanders, and Representative Welch, thanking them for signing on to letters opposing UNRWA funding cut.  Ask them to keep pressuring the administration to restore full U.S.  UNRWA funding.


– Kathy Shapiro, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine