The Trump administration informed the United Nations yesterday it would cut aid for Palestinian refugees by more than half, withholding $65 million in funds. The announcement was made by an official with the State Department who said “It is time other countries, some of them quite wealthy, step in and do their part to advance regional security and stability.”
For Halima Abu Hendi, 40, a Palestinian living in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Trump’s steep cut could mean that her pantry will be empty next month. Halima survives off of food assistance from by the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) that comes in the form of parcels she picks up from a distribution center every 90 days. At the moment, her stock is already running low, with under a pound of chickpeas, sugar, and rice, and nearly out of milk powder to feed her husband and herself, and their seven children.
“We rely on chickpea to prepare Falafel for the three daily meals, and could replace it with sweetened noodles or canned tuna,” Halima said, explaining the UNRWA staples fill up 90 percent of her family’s diet.
Halima and her husband Abdul Baset Abu Hendi, 44, were both born in Jabalia camp.
Last year the U.S. contributed $368 million to UNRWA, of which over $100 million went to services in Syria. The move to cut aid takes place amid enormous pressure on Palestinian leaders to accept the U.S.’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and to continue discussing the prospects of a U.S. brokered peace deal.
UNRWA provides services to 5.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The refugees in Gaza live in eight UNRWA run camps, constitute 70 percent of the local population of nearly 2 million.
It’s not only Pakistan that we pay billions of dollars to for nothing, but also many other countries, and others. As an example, we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
Yet in recent weeks UNRWA has become under review by the Trump administration as it eyes options to pressure the Palestinian leadership to work with the U.S. envoy for Middle East peace.
“[W]e pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter while most of the Middle East was sleeping two weeks ago. “With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace,” he added, “why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed suit last week. He told his cabinet, “UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem,” and “It also perpetuates the narrative of the right of return, as it were, in order to eliminate the State of Israel; therefore, UNRWA needs to pass from the world.”
Back in Jabalia, Abdul Baset, does not expect he can make up the coming food shortages. Although he is a tailor, Abdul Baset says he has not sewed for months. Gaza’s economy is depressed and unemployment is a staggering 42 percent, the highest in the world.
“I use my UN ID card to receive canned tuna, frying oil, flour… .The aroma of sweetened noodles and fried falafel. Refilling the pantry is a festive moment for my family,” he told Mondoweiss days before the Trump administration made the announcement to hold the UN funds. At that time, the couple said most of their updates on the flow of UN goods came from casual conversations, which had turned worrisome in recent days.
“We do not know anything. Concern is endless and the feeling has taken control over this camp. It is in our daily conversations with neighbors who meet each day and night by our front doors,” Halima said
Aside from food aid, many Palestinians relay entirely on UNRWA’s health services. The UN runs nearly 200 health clinics for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA provides services for more than nine million patients visits at health care facilities in the region.
In Western Gaza City, Mariam Oraif, 74, waits at an UNRWA’s health center to pick up her insulin and get weekly treatment. Aside from diabetes she has high blood pressure. Mariam was not aware of the then impending cuts to UNRWA. When asked what she will do if this clinic is no longer able to provide her with medication, Mariam said of Trump, “He wants to kill us.”
“I can barely buy a 5 Shekel ($1.4) Paracetamol tablets. What should I do if I am forced to buy these free drugs from a pharmacy? Are you kidding me? I’m talking about $80, I never had such cash in my wallet,” she continued.
Wijdan Dahman, 28, was in the same clinic. Her infant was getting the Polio vaccine. She too was surprised to learn of the coming U.S. funding cut.
“Is this two-month-old infant politically involved?” Wijdan asked, “Do they want a disabled or sick generation, is it not enough to be a refugee in camps?, why should such baby pay the price for this foolish policy?”
Near the parking leading to the clinic, Sufian al-Wadiya, 38, a municipal employee, said “Stopping UNRWA’s services is more dangerous than launching a war jets and tanks.”
If Trump reduces aid to Palestinian refugees, Sufian said “it would be a war against patients and schoolchildren who will turn into thieves.”
More than 500,000 Palestinian children are enrolled in 700 UNRWA schools across the region.
In front of the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza, teacher Nadia Abu Ta’ima and her pupil, Hanan, 9, protested ahead of the Trump administration’s announcement. Nadia was among dozens of educators demanding pay increases.
Hanan carried a banner: “Miss Nadia must get a fixed-term contract.”
“Can you imagine the feeling of being a teacher who instructs around 50 pupils in one classroom and you might get a call one day that you no longer will come into school anymore?” Nadia said.
Hanan chimed in, “I do not understand why they might want fire miss Nadia. Is UNRWA bankrupted? My friends and I can collect money to pay our teacher.”
UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide aid in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced in the Middle East. UNRWA was initially intended to be a temporary agency, but it has continued to provide support for Palestinian refugees for the better part of 60 years.