Over 450,000 Palestine refugee children are enrolled in UNRWA schools for the 2015/16 school year. UNRWA Photo by Taghrid Mohammad

“Disrupting” UNRWA Means Disrupting School for 500,000 Palestinian Children

The UN agency that provides humanitarian relief for Palestinian refugees is coming under assault from the Trump administration. Again.

Late last week, Foreign Policy reported that the Trump administration was seeking to abolish the UN Relief and Works Agency, better known as UNRWA. This is the UN entity that provides humanitarian assistance and social services to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.  It is the lifeline for millions of Palestinians — and now, the Trump administration wants it abolished. 

“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” Trump advisor Jared Kushner wrote in a memo obtained by Foreign Policy. He added, “Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are…Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.”

The “things” that Kushner seeks to “strategically” break are, in fact, mostly schools and hospitals.

UNRWA provides food relief for the most needy Palestinians, primary health care to over three million people and operates schools for over half a million Palestinian children. It is the single largest employer of Palestinians. Among other things, “disrupting” UNRWA means disrupting the school year for a generation of students. 

UNRWA is already operating on a shoestring budget because of a sudden decision by the Trump administration earlier this year to freeze payments. That decision was taken following a vote at the UN General Assembly in which countries overwhelmingly voted to condemn the United States for its decision to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem. A scheduled payment was withheld, with little exception that the United States would provide funding for UNRWA.

For decades, it has been US policy to provide robust political and financial support for UNRWA.

And embedded in Kushner’s memo is the reason why: UNRWA provides a modicum of stability in an otherwise volatile region. Administrations of both parties decided it was in the best interests of the United States and of Israel to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe among Palestinians, particularly in the Occupied Territories. The United States has historically been the largest funder of UNRWA, regularly providing over $300 million annually. 

But now, the Trump administration is upending that policy by deliberately seeking to break UNRWA. Ostensibly, the rationale here is to leverage humanitarian assistance in order to force the Palestinian leadership to accept a settlement with Israel on terms more favorable to Israel. But this is a very risky gamble — and one that involves imposing hardships on millions of Palestinians. Breaking UNRWA would add instability to the region and spark a humanitarian catastrophe among a population that is already vulnerable. It would make a bad situation even worse. 

From the podcast: Peter Mulrean, Director of UNRWA’s Representative Office in New York discusses new challenges to UNRWA operations after US suspended its payments.