The US suspended $65 million in aid to the Palestinian aid group UNWRA — and it could affect millions of lives

In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria.

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In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria.
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United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images

  • The US announced it would suspend $65 million in aid to Palestinian refugee group UNRWA.
  • The State Department said it would still offer a voluntary package of $60 million to the UN aid group to sustain Palestinian schools and health services.
  • Israel has also previously recommended the US gradually reduce its aid to UNRWA.
  • To date, roughly 5 million Palestinian refugees across several countries benefit from UNRWA’s assistance programs.

The US announced it would suspend $65 million in aid to Palestinian refugee group UNRWA on Tuesday, and pledged to give about half of what they had previously offered the agency.

According to UNRWA, the US provided more than $350 million in aid to the organization in 2017.

The State Department said in its daily briefing that it would offer a voluntary package of $60 million to the UN aid group to sustain Palestinian schools and health services, and would help provide salaries to health and teaching professionals.

The Department said an additional $65 million will be held for “future consideration,” and added that it hoped to see some reforms in the operational structure of the organization.

The spokeswoman said that the US has been the “largest single donor to UNRWA,” and said the country is “the most generous nation on the globe.” She urged other countries to step up and invest more aid into UNRWA’s programs.

The briefing did not get into the specifics of why the US decided to cut its aid, and would not confirm if it was related to President Donald Trump tweeting earlier this month that the US pays the Palesitian oranizations but gets “no appreciation or respect,” and that the organizations are “no longer willing to talk peace.”

Trump’s rhetoric angered the Palestinians, who have argued that his policies in the Middle East strongly favor Israel and the US could no longer be viewed as an impartial broker for peace.

Trump’s decision to cut aid to Palestinians may also have been influenced by recent comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said last week that UNRWA needs to disappear from the face of the earth because it perpetuates Palestinian suffering. Israel has also previously recommended the US gradually reduce its aid to UNRWA, Israeli media reported, advice that the US seems to have taken.

What is UNRWA?

Palestinian workers prepare aid at a distribution unit of a branch of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), on July 23, 2008 in Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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Palestinian workers prepare aid at a distribution unit of a branch of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), on July 23, 2008 in Gaza City, Gaza Strip.
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Abid Katib/Getty Images

UNRWA, or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees is a special aid unit created by the United Nations after the end of the Israeli-Arab war in 1948. Israel declared Independence and gained recognition from several international bodies that year, but displaced roughly 750,000 Palestinians living in the disputed land.

The United Nations created the unit in 1949 to provide assistance and development opportunities to the influx of Palestinian refugees created as a by-product of Israel’s creation. The aid benefits extend to refugees expelled from their homes in 1948, as well as their descendants, a clause unique to UNRWA.

To date, there are roughly 5 million Palestinian refugees across several countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, who benefit from UNRWA’s assistance programs.

According to UNRWA’s website, the organization covers services like education and health care. They also provide social protection services and food aid to improve the physical and social well being of the refugees in refugee camps.

Israel has condemned UNRWA in the past, and has been critical of militant groups in the Gaza strip using UNRWA facilities to store weapons.

UNRWA will still provide its services, despite cuts

Palestinian refugee school girls play on the beach as they attend a summer games camp on July 14, 2008 in Gaza City, Gaza Strip. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is operating summer camps for at least 200,000 children registered in the UNRWA's schools.

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Palestinian refugee school girls play on the beach as they attend a summer games camp on July 14, 2008 in Gaza City, Gaza Strip. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is operating summer camps for at least 200,000 children registered in the UNRWA’s schools.
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Abid Katib/Getty Images

According to UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl, the US’ aid cuts to UNRWA is likely to jeopardize the education and security of the millions of Palestinian refugees that benefit from aid programs.

“At stake is the access of 525,000 boys and girls in 700 UNRWA schools, and their future … the human security of millions of Palestine refugees, in need of emergency food assistance and other support in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip … and the dignity of an entire community,” Krähenbühl told Business Insider in a statement.

Krähenbühl added that the US’ decision will also impact the security of the region at large, at a time when “the Middle East faces multiple risks and threats, notably that of further radicalization.”

Faced with severe budget cuts, Krähenbühl said the organization urges Member States of the United Nations to show support for UNRWA and create “new funding alliances and initiatives.” UNRWA said it created a social media campaign under the slogan #FundUNRWA in the hopes to have its message spread across global platforms.

Krähenbühl stressed that UNWRA’s aid will not be deterred by cuts: “We are working with absolute determination to ensure that UNRWA services continue.”

“This is a moment for internal cohesion and solidarity. Times are very critical but we will do our utmost to protect [UNRWA members].”