The Gaza Strip, where more than 100 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers during mass protests in recent weeks, is a dense and dismal sliver of land along the Mediterranean Coast between Egypt and Israel. More than 2 million people are packed tightly into a space the size of Portland, Ore. More than 40% of the population is unemployed; there are chronic shortages of medicine, power and food. Infant mortality rates are going up rather than down. The Israeli blockade of the air and sea has stifled economic growth, devastated infrastructure and increased despondency.
It was against that background that the Trump administration announced in January that it was cutting tens of millions of dollars in funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the nearly 70-year-old organization that provides assistance to more than 5 million Palestinian refugees around the world. In Gaza alone, the agency runs 575 schools for 270,000 students as well as 22 medical clinics with 400 doctors and nurses. UNRWA also provides food assistance to half of the population of Gaza and employs more than 8,000 people in the territory.
Regardless of what you think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority or even of the United Nations, it’s difficult to see how cutting basic aid to desperate people makes sense on either a human level or a political level. It’s unclear how less schooling, more hunger and fewer jobs will improve the quality of life, ease cross-border tensions or boost the chances of peace.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration said in January that it would withhold $65 million of the $125 million it was expected to contribute to the agency that month. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the funding was still “under review,” suggesting that the rest of the $360 million the U.S. was expected to give the agency in 2018 is unlikely to be forthcoming either.
UNRWA officials says they will soon begin to run out of money and be forced to cut programs.
This is all part of a longer, more complicated battle, of course. UNRWA, which has traditionally received most of its funding from the United States, has often been derided by Israel as biased. Critics complain that the agency has, among other things, effectively prolonged the ongoing conflict by giving refugee status not just to those Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in 1948, but also to their children and their children’s children, so that the number of refugees has climbed from 750,000 when the agency was created to 5 million today.
The Trump administration, for its part, has said repeatedly that other countries should bear more of the funding burden for the United Nations generally and UNRWA in particular. It has also cited the need for “reforms” in UNRWA (although it hasn’t explained what change it wants to see).
But none of these concerns justifies the withdrawal of funding so suddenly from an agency serving such a desperately needy population. If the U.S. has real and significant concerns about the way UNRWA operates, it should explain what kinds of reforms it would like to see and why. If it wants other nations to contribute more, then it should prod them to do so.
What the administration should not do is to withhold UNRWA funds as a way to put pressure on Hamas, as a cudgel to bring the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table or as a general expression of its dislike for the U.N.’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.