500 Palestine Refugee children enjoying summer activities hosted at the UNRWA Palestine School in Alliance, Damascus. Credit UNRWA Instagram

Ending UNRWA Funding is Tantamount to Regional Escalation

There is drama in the United States Senate. Yesterday, Senate Republicans rejected a national security bill (that they helped write!) that would have revamped American border and asylum policy and provided aid for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel. Democrats, who hold a slim majority, are now planning to offer standalone foreign aid packages for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel. For Israel, the measure would provide military assistance to the Israeli government and funds for humanitarian agencies supporting besieged Gazans.

The ultimate fate of this effort is uncertain. However, in all versions of this legislative drama one thing is consistent: funding for UNRWA is prohibited. This was the case in the doomed bill that Democrats supported yesterday, and it would almost certainly be the case in any Israel funding package going forward. If a bill is passed, any humanitarian assistance would be required to bypass UNRWA.

Congress is following the Biden administration’s lead. On January 26, the State Department announced that it was suspending funding for UNRWA in response to Israeli allegations that 12 of UNRWA’s 30,000 employees participated in the October 7 attacks. The US was UNRWA’s largest donor, so other countries followed suit.

There now seems to be an emerging political consensus in the United States against funding UNRWA. This may make sense through the narrow lense of domestic American politics, but the consequences of rejecting UNRWA will reverberate throughout the Middle East and encourage the very dynamics of regional escalation that the Biden administration ostensibly seeks to avoid.

UNRWA is the main humanitarian service provider for Palestinians. And while most people are rightly focusing on its work in Gaza right now, UNRWA’s reach goes far beyond the strip. It runs hospitals, schools and humanitarian services in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In fact, most of the population of Palestinian refugees that UNRWA serves live outside of Gaza. The funding crisis now facing UNRWA is imperaling schools, hospitals, humanitarian relief, and even basic services like garbage collection, for close to 6 million people throughout the region.

UNRWA’s ability to continue to operate in Lebanon is particularly concerning. The agency runs health facilities that serve about 200,000 people and schools that educate tens of thousands of children. It is also a major employer — thousands of families rely on salaries from UNRWA for income. But if present trends continue, UNRWA’s work in Lebanon will cease in just a few weeks. “The agency will no longer have funding as of the end of February, so that means our operations would come to a halt during March,” said Dorothee Klaus, UNRWA’s top official in Lebanon.

Lebanon is already in the midst of an economic free-fall. In 2023, Lebanon’s annual inflation rate was 222%, the third year in a row in which inflation was in the triple digits. Lebanon’s GDP has collapsed by 40% in just a few short years. Meanwhile, Lebanon-based Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces have been regularly trading fire since October 7. The sudden collapse of UNRWA in Lebanon would directly impact the nearly half a million people it serves — and they would have nowhere else to to turn. This would be profoundly destabilizing to a country that is already teetering on the edge of collapse.

Defunding UNRWA would also destabilize Jordan, a stalwart US ally. Jordan hosts over 2 million Palestinian refugees, the largest number of Palestinian refugees outside of the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA administers 10 camps, 169 schools, 25 health facilities and provides a social safety net for about 60,000 beneficiaries in Jordan. State capacity is stronger in Jordan than it is in Lebanon, but not by much. And like in Lebanon, there is no ready-made substitute for UNRWA. The sudden cessation of UNRWA’s operations in Jordan would only add to growing domestic pressure that threatens the survival of a government that has both a peace pact with Israel and close ties to the United States.

And then of course, there’s Gaza. UNRWA is irreplaceable in Gaza right now. Other humanitarian agencies simply cannot do what UNRWA is doing in Gaza today — they have said so themselves. To the extent that humanitarian aid has reached people in Gaza since the war began, it is largely through UNRWA’s networks, which are still operating, though barely. From the International Crisis Group:

Gaza’s dependence on UNRWA has only grown since the war began. No other UN humanitarian entity or international NGO operating in the enclave can match its capacity or its reach, particularly now that the hostilities have forced many to suspend operations even as the population’s needs have risen exponentially. Four months of fighting have displaced 85 per cent of Gaza’s population of 2.2 million, nearly all of whom depend to some degree on UNRWA-distributed assistance. The agency’s basic education services have stopped altogether, and the UN is sounding the alarm about the mounting risk of famine. Despite the risks of venturing out into a war zone, nearly one quarter of UNRWA’s staff in Gaza, approximately 3,000 people, continue to show up for work – not least because they rely on the UN for their livelihoods in an economy otherwise in shambles. Martin Griffiths, the UN humanitarian chief, has lauded them as “indispensable” to the UN’s entire response to the war, since they not only manage UNRWA shelters and deliver food aid but are also the backbone of the UN’s “distribution, warehousing, logistics and human resources” infrastructure in the enclave.

UNRWA’s ability to operate beyond the next few weeks is in deep, deep jeopardy. In Gaza, a reduction of UNRWA capacity would impede the distribution of aid. In the context of an imminent famine, this means massive numbers of people starving to death. Elsewhere in the region, millions of people living in very fragile countries will suddenly lose their social safety net.

American domestic politics may be coalescing around defunding UNRWA. But at this precise moment, the consequences of this decision can be predictably expected to add to the chaos and destabilization of a region already in turmoil.