The humanitarian cost of throttling funds for refugees
In a different part of the camp, an old man took out a large rusty key which, he told me, unlocked the front door of his house in modern-day Israel. What he didn’t tell me, but which we both knew, was that his village had been raised to the ground in the 1948 War of Independence. Not even the ruins of his house, which that key unlocked, remained.
Today, about 450 000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon. Most are scattered throughout the country’s 12 refugees camps, making up an estimated 10% of the country’s population. Denied access to Lebanon’s healthcare system, they’re not allowed to own property, and are banned from working in 73 professions including medicine, law, and engineering.
Beirut admits this is to encourage them to leave the country, and not jeopardise their right of return to present-day Israel.
This issue – whether Palestinian refugees living abroad will be allowed to return to a future Palestinian state or be monetarily compensated – has always been one of the main stumbling blocks to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. That, alongside the status of Jerusalem and the borders of a future Palestinian state.
Every Israeli government since 1948 has vehemently opposed the idea of Palestinian right of return, claiming it would destroy Israel by demographic means because it would spell the end of a Jewish-majority.
The issue is now back in the news after the United States, in a widely-anticipated move, announced recently that it would no longer be making additional contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The announcement came just days after Washington said it was withdrawing $200 million (R3 billion) from its main development agency, USAID, for programmes based mostly in the Gaza Strip which assist tens of thousands of people.
Many have been quick to suggest that American President Donald Trump is doing this in part to curry favour with pro-Israel American Christian evangelicals ahead of the US midterm elections in November. But its implications are far reaching.
Founded in 1949 after 700 000 Palestinians fled or were driven out of Israel, UNRWA looks after Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
After the Six Day War in 1967, another roughly 300 000 Palestinians became refugees. Over the years, the number swelled to about 5 million people – what with the original refugees having children and grandchildren – who today rely on UNRWA’s schools, healthcare, and social services.
Now the issue is no longer about the simple displacement of original refugees, but rather about the need for a fair resolution for people who still look to pre-1948 Israel and what their families lost.
For a long time, the US has been the largest individual donor to UNRWA, pledging about one third of the agency’s $1.1billion (R16.6 billion) annual budget. But after its last payment in January when it contributed $60 million (R908 million), Washington said it was no longer willing to continue to disproportionately finance an “irredeemably flawed operation”.
It accused the international community – aside from Jordan, Egypt, Sweden, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – of shirking responsibility.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long argued that Palestinian refugees must not be afforded special status, and should be looked after by the main United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. Ultimately, he would like to see UNRWA abolished, precisely what many observers say the American administration is angling for.
Many Israelis and Americans believe that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee problem by assisting countries like Lebanon, which took in Palestinian refugees, but avoids assimilating them so as to keep their status as refugees. What the Americans might be hoping for is that by cutting the UNRWA funding, such countries would be forced to look elsewhere for financial and humanitarian solutions which might in turn see the hundreds of thousands living within their borders being forced to assimilate and hence destroy the right-of-return dream.
As expected, Palestinian officials have criticised the US actions as an attempt by the American administration to persuade them to agree to a White House-imposed peace deal largely in step with Israel’s vision.
President Trump has already acted unilaterally by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Critics warn his actions are endangering America’s ability to behave – or at least be perceived – as a neutral mediator in the region for years to come.
They also caution that by cutting off aid to Palestinian refugees, the worst affected will be the poorest Palestinians who live in UNRWA-run camps not only in Gaza and the West Bank, but in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
In Jordan, about two million refugees are registered with UNWRA, while in Syria more than half a million lived in the country before the outbreak of war in 2011. In these poverty stricken camps, extremism thrives.
The Palestinian leadership has been hard pressed to come up with any counter proposals. However, European and Arab countries are pledging to protect UNRWA with increased funding. Britain announced it would contribute an additional $9 million (R136 million), Spain said it was doubling its already $1 million (R15.1 million) contribution, Germany promised it would significantly increase its contribution, and Jordan said it would lead a campaign to raise funds, including appealing to the Arab League. The European Union has pledged to continue supporting the agency.
Still, the future of the agency remains uncertain. In an ideal world, it would no longer be necessary. But in the less-than-ideal world in which we live, for those who rely on services, it remains vital regardless of what the politics suggest.