The United Nations Relief and Works Agency — better known as UNRWA — was created after 750,000 Palestinians fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. Refugees in the Gaza Strip will mark the 70th anniversary of that exodus on May 15, the culmination of the symbolic "Great Return March" that has brought thousands of protesters to the territory's border with Israel this month, where they have consistently met excessive, lethal force from the Israeli army. President Trump insists he can broker a deal to end the hostilities for good, but early this year his administration froze 83% of America's funding for UNRWA, a move that could cripple the agency, intensify the situation along the Gaza border and undermine the chance for a lasting peace.
The U.N. resolution that created UNRWA charged the agency with providing relief to "prevent distress" among Palestinian refugees and furthering "conditions of peace and stability." With contributions from the U.N. member nations, including the United States — UNRWA's most loyal and generous supporter — the agency has supplied essential food, water, healthcare and education to roughly 5 million people in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Since 2007, close to 2 million Palestinians have been effectively trapped in the Gaza Strip. Israel has sealed it off, and the border with Egypt only opens rarely. The effects have been catastrophic. Unemployment there is greater than 41%, and the number of Palestinians in Gaza relying on UNRWA for food has surged from fewer than 80,000 in 2000 to almost 1 million today.
In January, the U.S. abruptly announced that it would withhold more than half of a $125-million installment on its 2018 funding for UNRWA. Annually, the U.S. has contributed about $365 million to the agency, but the Trump administration has now made it clear that UNRWA will not receive humanitarian aid without political conditions attached. U.S. representatives portrayed the freeze as a means of encouraging other donors to step forward, but multiple sources indicate that the Trump administration is predicating UNRWA's funding on Palestinian officials' willingness to reenter peace talks, despite conditions that make key negotiation issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, a foregone conclusion.
Conditioning aid on political action turns humanitarian assistance on its head. Since its inception, UNRWA has strived to remain impartial amid infighting, violence and turmoil, concentrating on helping Palestinians in need, regardless of their politics.
In Gaza, for example, residents have been thrust into an internal struggle since 2007, when Hamas consolidated its control of the territory. In retaliation, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has repeatedly reduced the supply of electricity to Gaza, causing water treatment facilities to shut down, slowing the flow of potable water to a drip and forcing raw sewage to back up into Gaza's streets.
UNRWA has trucked in emergency supplies of clean, drinkable water to more than 250 Gaza schools, where the agency educates almost a quarter of a million children. When foul water caused outbreaks of infection and diarrhea among refugees, UNRWA's health clinics have provided emergency medical care and organized sanitation efforts at the agency's schools and camps.
Last year, more than 19,000 individuals benefited from short-term employment through UNRWA's job-creation program in Gaza. In addition, to manage its operations, the agency employs more than 14,000 Gazans. All told, last year UNRWA employed 8.5% of the entire Gazan labor force.
UNRWA relies entirely on the generosity of international donors. The U.S. contribution typically makes up about 30% of the agency's total budget. Without consistent U.S. funding, conditions in Gaza could easily slip from barely adequate to intolerable.
UNRWA has proved a crucial source of stability through 70 years of political turmoil for Palestinians, largely because it has concentrated on administering relief based entirely on need. It has steadfastly held off one looming humanitarian catastrophe after another in Gaza and throughout the Palestinian diaspora, keeping alive the hope that a political solution is within reach.
Cutting UNRWA's funding undermines efforts to sustain that hope and to create the conditions that ensure the rights of all parties in the conflict. If the United States wants to be part of paving a path toward Middle East peace, it should restore its contribution to the agency, and reestablish itself as a global humanitarian leader.
Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney and assistant professor at George Mason University.