Analysis: Trump wrong to cut UNRWA funds

The Trump administration has decided to stop funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a body which provides humanitarian assistance for Palestinian refugees.

The decision amounts to a $350m cut from the organisation’s $1.2bn annual budget.

Evaluation of the Trump administration’s decision often balances the agency’s vital humanitarian work against its political, security and administrative failings.  But concerns on the latter do not outweigh the benefits of the former.

UNRWA provides essential services – including education, healthcare, and social security – to millions of Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. The Agency serves over 5 million refugees, who are the Palestinians and their descendants who were expelled or fled from present-day Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

This aid directly improves the lives of Palestinians every day: a million Gazans depend on UNRWA for food assistance and a quarter of a million study at the agency’s 267 schools in the strip. In the West Bank, UNRWA runs 43 health care centres, 15 community rehabilitation centres, two vocational training centres, and 19 women’s programme centres.

These necessary services are provided by an undoubtedly bloated and inefficient organisation. UNRWA has a staff of over 30,000, whilst the UN’s other refugee agency, UNHCR, which provides services for 17 million people, has a staff of just under 11,000. But inefficiencies alone do not justify ending US funding for UNRWA in its entirety, which will cut deeply into frontline services.

More severe criticisms of UNRWA concern the agency’s complicity in terrorism and incitement. In the 2014 Gaza War, rockets were launched from UNRWA schools. A former legal adviser to the agency, James Lindsay, wrote in 2009 that UNRWA has “taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from the ranks of its staff or its beneficiaries, and no steps at all to prevent members of organizations such as Hamas from joining its staff.” The agency’s textbooks deny Jewish rights and a Jewish connection to holy sites in Israel.

However Israel’s security establishment is clear: UNWRA’s collapse could precipitate a security crisis far more severe than the status quo. Trump’s cuts would – according to an official security briefing to the Israeli cabinet – be tantamount to “setting fire to the ground”. Officials fear that Hamas would step in to fill the role a diminished UNRWA would leave.

Dave Harden, a former U.S. Agency for International Development official, called Trump’s decision “dangerous, with unpredictable consequences”, and said an “immediate and capricious cut off of UNRWA funding… risks collapsing the Palestinian Authority [and] empowering Hamas”.

The truth is, however, that none of these considerations were taken into account by the Trump administration. These aid cuts are based on neither administrative or security concerns: they are political.

First, the Trump administration believes that it can use aid cuts to force the Palestinian leadership to the negotiating table. But the Palestinian Authority refuses to do so because its trust of the American administration is at an all-time low, after Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. UNRWA aid cuts will only exacerbate this division – and push Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas further away from where the US wants him to be.

Second, many on the American and Israeli right believe UNRWA exacerbates the Palestinian refugee problem by recognising an intergenerational refugee status. Though there were 750,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948, the granting of hereditary refugee status – unlike most other refugee populations – means that number stands at 5 million today.

It is claimed this sustains the idea that 5 million Palestinians will one day “return” to the Jewish state – something Israel, a country of under 9 million, would never accept – thus prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But this logic is flawed too. The desire for a right of return, and the claim of intergeneration refugee status, is at the core of the Palestinian national narrative: it will not be dropped simply to avoid aid cuts.

And it is already known, roughly, what form the right of return will take. Past two-state negotiations that stood on the brink of success centred on the idea that “return” would mostly be to a future Palestinian state, that tens of thousands of refugees would return to Israel with a focus on family reunification, and that Israel would offer compensation and recognition of its role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem.  No UNRWA cuts will change the contours of that framework.

The refugee agency has its flaws. It must do more to root out Hamas influence in Gaza and ensure its educational services direct Palestinians towards reconciliation and coexistence. But Trump’s swingeing axe will achieve no meaningful political goals, will undermine Israeli and Palestinian security, and above all will damage crucial humanitarian services that millions of Palestinians rely on.

The UK and Germany have announced they will plug some of the American funding gap. It is vital that they do so.