In Gaza, U.S. Cuts to UN Palestinian Refugee Agency Expected to Endanger Thousands of Teachers' Jobs

A White House team met to consider options following Trump's threats to cut aid to the Palestinians. In UNRWA, officials warn of 'catastrophic' consequences

A Palestinian man walks past a logo of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Jalazone refugee camp, near the West Bank city of Ramallah January 3, 2018.
MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

A significant funding cut by a UN agency that helps Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, would put at risk the jobs of some 12,000 teachers throughout the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and the jobs of more than 20,000 teachers including other countries where UNRWA operates – Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – sources in Gaza and the West Bank told Haaretz.

Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to cut funding to the Palestinians if they don’t return to the negotiating table, a White House team met Friday to study options for actual cuts. The discussion ended without immediate decisions and is expected to continue. Among the possibilities is cutting U.S. funding to the financially struggling UNRWA, which is more than $300 million a year – about a third of the agency’s budget.

UNRWA data, 2017

The concern among the sources, who are in constant contact with the agency, is that funding for education would be the first hit, based in part on cases in which UNRWA has had to cut its funding in the past. Funding for education is the first to be cut because reductions in other areas – food, health and infrastructure – could endanger people's lives.

According to American diplomats familiar with the administration’s discussions on the subject, it is now mainly UN Ambassador Nikki Haley who is pushing for this step, in keeping with the policy of penalties she declared after the vote in the UN General Assembly against American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But other administration officials believe that cutting funding to UNRWA, whose main work is in the Gaza Strip, would not necessarily influence Palestinian officials in Ramallah to renew talks with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Friday that Netanyahu “supports President Trump’s critical approach and believes that practical steps should be taken to change the situation in which UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem instead of resolving it.”

Fears of worsening security situation

But a senior official said Saturday night that the prime minister supports a gradual cut only. This comes in the context of security officials’ position that a collapse of humanitarian aid in Gaza could worsen the security situation. In contrast to these moderate messages behind the scenes, as recently as June it was Netanyahu who called on Haley to re-examine UNRWA’s existence.

“UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and doesn’t resolve it, and so it should be dismantled and its parts incorporated in other UN commissions,” Netanyahu said at the time. His position conforms to other messages from people close to him, under which there might be Israeli support for transferring funds to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, even though the agency’s expertise is not in Gaza at all.

Over the weekend, sources in the administration denied reports that the year’s first payment to UNRWA had been frozen. “We are examining our funding to the Palestinians in light of their recent conduct and in continuation of the president’s stance on the issue,” a senior administration official told Haaretz Washington correspondent Amir Tibon.

UNRWA has not received information from the United States about a funding freeze, but only a general statement that funding “is now under review in light of the president’s statements.”

Palestinian schoolgirls at an UNRWA elementary school at the Rafah refugee camp, Gaza.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

According to UNRWA officials, the first payment of each new year is usually received during the first two weeks of January; only in the third week of the month will UNWRA definitively know if funding has been delayed. In recent years UNRWA has striven to widen its circle of donors from Arab countries, thus UN sources say that if Washington cuts aid, the agency will ask other donor nations to pick up the slack.

“Based on extensive conversations with interlocutors in the U.S. administration, our understanding is that no decision has been made on the question of American funding to UNRWA,” the agency’s spokesman, Chris Gunness, told Haaretz.

“The United States has been our largest single donor over the past 70 years and remains an important strategic partner in our humanitarian mission. UNRWA will continue to work tirelessly to ensure the full implementation of our mandate which was fully endorsed by the General Assembly, which has described our role as indispensable,” he said.

“UNRWA is not a light bulb that can be switched on and off. We are a living institution whose mandate must be protected by the international community .... It is in no one’s interests that the hard-earned human capital, the hope and opportunities that UNRWA has created, should be allowed to decline. The human impact of this could be catastrophic; the implications of this on regional stability are incalculable,” he added.

“In 2015 a financial crisis forced us perilously close to delaying the start of the school year. This sent shock waves through an already marginalized and vulnerable population. When an organization like UNRWA, so deeply embedded in a community, is destabilized, the disruptions are likely to be profound, long-lasting, dramatic and unpredictable.”

Health services also at risk

Besides education, which it is feared in both Gaza and the West Bank would be the first to be harmed by a cutback, UNRWA provides health services. The agency employs more than 3,000 medical personnel, of which about 1,000 are in Gaza and 850 in the West Bank. Some 9 million visits a year are made to the agency’s clinics in all the countries where it operates. Half the visits are to clinics in Gaza and another million to clinics in the West Bank.

Another possibility on the table is a cutback in other U.S. assistance for humanitarian and economic projects in the West Bank via the U.S. Agency for International Development. According to a congressional report, in 2017 some $330 million was given to USAID projects.

This money has been at risk of a cutback for a few months now due to legislation moving through Congress against the Palestinian Authority policy of paying salaries to convicted terrorists in Israeli prisons. The bill, known as the Taylor Force Act (after an American who was stabbed to death in a 2016 terror attack in Tel Aviv), is meant to cut part of the funding for projects in the West Bank, other than health and water projects.

The Trump administration also transfers separately another $30 million or so to the PA security forces, which are being trained by U.S. Army officers in coordination with the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service. The Defense Department and the U.S. intelligence services are expected to come out against trimming this funding.