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

Will the Trump Administration Upend Decades of US Policy and Cut Relief Aid to Palestinian Refugees?

Is the United States about to cut off American funding for the UN agency that provides humanitarian aid for Palestinian refugees?  A tweet from President Trump and remarks from Ambassador Nikki Haley seem to suggest that the US is considering such a move.

And in remarks to the UN press corps yesterday,  Nikki Haley said US funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, could be on the chopping block.


Cutting off American Support to UNRWA Is a Risky Move

The UN Relief and Works Agency was established in 1949 in the wake of a displacement crisis caused by the partition of British controlled Palestine and subsequent war. To this day there are some 7 million Palestinian refugees, some of whom live in neighboring Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The majority live under Israeli military occupation the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA runs schools and hospitals, and provides social services and other programs to promote the social and economic welfare of Palestinian refugees.

Like most UN humanitarian agencies, it is funded almost entirely through the voluntary contributions of member states. The United States is the single largest funder of UNRWA, providing about $300 million last year. (The Europeans and Saudis are the next largest funders.)

The Israelis have long supported robust American funding for UNRWA. The reason is practical: UNRWA offers a degree of stability for Palestinians. For one, it is how most Palestinian children get their educations. Also, a reduction of UNRWA support could exacerbate a humanitarian crisis along Israel’s borders which could negatively impact Israel’s own security. And should the schools and support services provided by UNRWA shut down, there is fear that entities like Hamas might fill the void. For these reasons, the United States — under presidents of both parties —  has historically been a major supporter of UNRWA.

Now, the Trump administration is calling that traditional American leadership role into question. Should the United States make good on this threat and upend one pillar of stability for Palestinian refugees, the consequences could be highly unpredictable and add yet another element of instability in an already volatile region.