by Mitchell Plitnick
On Wednesday, 21 global aid organizations issued an open letter to the Donald Trump administration pleading with them to reverse their decision to cut off aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The letter is a response to the US decision to withhold $65 million out of the $125 million in annual support it gives to UNRWA. US aid constitutes over 30% of UNRWA’s budget. A few days later, the US froze an additional $45 million it had authorized in December for food relief to refugees in Gaza and the West Bank.
“We are particularly alarmed that this decision impacting humanitarian aid to civilians is not based on any assessment of need, but rather designed both to punish Palestinian political leaders and to force political concessions from them,” the letter stated. “This is simply unacceptable as a rationale for denying civilians humanitarian assistance, and a dangerous and striking departure from U.S. policy on international humanitarian assistance.”
The State Department contends that the money is being withheld due to concerns about “how UNRWA operates.” This implies that the agency’s efficiency, not the current tensions between the Trump administration and the Palestinian leadership, has triggered the decision to withhold funding, but few believe that.
This is a stone that could be difficult to stop once it gets rolling. the Israeli right and their supporters in Washington have attacked UNRWA for many years. They allege that UNRWA, as an institution that feeds, houses, employs, and educates Palestinian refugees, perpetuates the Palestinian refugee crisis. It’s a classic victim-blaming argument, but it has traction among Israelis and, crucially among American lawmakers. Even though most Israelis, even Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, understand that Israel would face its own problems if UNRWA is crippled or even shut down, this is something that could develop a political momentum of its own, especially since the Trump administration may not truly understand the stabilizing role UNRWA plays.
UNRWA’s efforts serve to relieve the Palestinian Authority from the massive costs of taking care of the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. But the cuts to the UNRWA budget would be felt across the Levant, in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, all of which have substantial populations of Palestinian refugees. Trump’s attacks on UNRWA could have a destructive effect in all those countries.
Sara Roy, a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, points out that Israel and Egypt would have to deal with the fallout from the lack of food-distribution networks and health care in Gaza. Jordan, meanwhile, would face a burden it could not bear if it had to care for the refugees that UNRWA currently serves. Lebanon could be pushed into chaos if it suddenly had to provide for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the camps there. “In Syria,” Roy says, “the loss of UNRWA services would mean the abandonment, in effect, of over half a million desperate men, women, and children in a war zone with few, if any, viable options.”
In the end, though, these very consequences, all of which would end up being problems for Israel, will not likely stop Trump from cutting off UNRWA. Netanyahu, at first, even argued against this suspension of funding, although he later changed course and supported steps to defund the agency. When push comes to shove, Israel needs UNRWA, and Netanyahu knows this.
But does Israel need the Palestinian Authority? That is a different question.
Reconsidering All US Aid to the Palestinians
“We give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands, that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump said.
With that statement, Trump made it clear that he was threatening all aid to the Palestinians. And why? Because, Trump said, “They disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice-president to see them.” The Palestinians, like every Christian leader in the region and many others, refused to meet with Pence due to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Palestinians depend a good deal on US aid. For FY 2017, approximately $362 million was requested from Congress for aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA budget for 2017 was $4.48 billion, so the US contribution is about 8% of the total budget, a significant amount. As it is, the PA struggles to pay its bills. Losing 8% of its budget would be devastating.
While Trump was turning up the heat in Davos, Netanyahu spoke about a “new model” for peace. The Israeli prime minister was vague about what this means, and presumably it is connected to whatever peace plan the Trump administration is cooking up. But Netanyahu described the plan as Israel retaining full security control over the West Bank while the Palestinians would have “the trappings” of a government. In practice, that sounds a lot like the status quo.
It may be that Netanyahu’s “new model” would entail greater Israeli control over Palestinian funds. Right now, Israel controls the taxes collected from imports. Broader control of revenue would be possible if the current structure of the PA is abandoned and the “trappings” of a Palestinian government got their funds from Israel, including funds from international donors. This notion, although purely speculative at this point, is one way to explain why the US and Israel seem to be simultaneously trying to force the Palestinians into an agreement that would perpetuate the status quo and push the PA into a fight with them.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Palestinian Ambassador to the United States Husam Zomlot told an audience at the Middle East Institute, “Our rights are not for sale. Money does not work when it comes to national and human rights.” Zomlot made it clear that the Palestinians were seeking an international coalition to mediate between themselves and Israel. He cited the P5+1, the group that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, as an example.
Whatever strategy Trump and Netanyahu are cooking up, the PA is not going to play along. If they believe that by threatening aid to the PA, Mahmoud Abbas will eventually come around, Zomlot was very clear that such a strategy was doomed to failure.
What Does the Future Hold?
Although the funding for UNRWA is likely to be, at worst, only temporarily disrupted—at least until Israel and the US figure out a way to defund the agency but mitigate the fallout—a significant cut in aid to the PA is more likely to stick, and the consequences are very uncertain. Other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, might step in and fill the void. But the Saudis have been pressing Abbas hard to go along with Trump’s peace plan, which was said to have been developed in consultation with them. The Saudi view might have changed in the wake of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but there is no indication of that yet.
The PA would surely collapse if it loses US funding with no substitute. Israel and the US might try to put a client government in charge of Palestinian administration. Israel tried something like this in the 1980s, setting up puppet municipal governments in Palestinian cities. It didn’t work then, and it is less likely to work now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try.
While this intrigue unfolds, the Palestinian people are going to go through a period of hardship, even by the standards of their own history. In Gaza, where people are already living on the brink, even a brief disruption of UNRWA’s services could lead to a public-health crisis and to widespread unrest. In the West Bank, the PA is already barely containing a powder keg, and confrontations between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli soldiers are becoming harsher and more frequent. The impact on UNRWA will be felt here too, and cuts in funding to the PA will magnify the problems.
The Netanyahu and Trump governments seem to want to make the Palestinians so miserable that they will accept what is likely to be an agreement for perpetual occupation or apartheid (pick your term). As Zomlot made clear in his speech, and as history shows, the Palestinians won’t give in to that sort of pressure. What comes next might be chaos, it might be an even tighter military grip by Israel, it might be something worse. But whatever it turns into, the innocent people in the West Bank, in Gaza, and, yes, in Israel too will pay the price for these reckless decisions by Netanyahu and Trump.
Photo: A school run by UNRWA (ISM Palestine via Flickr).