'We Cannot Go on Like This': Palestinian Refugees Can't Afford to Lose UNRWA

Published January 17th, 2018 - 04:00 GMT
A Palestinian man holds a lock placed symbolically in protest around the main gate of the UNRWA office in the Israeli occupied West Bank city of Hebron on Jan. 17, 2018, after the White House froze tens of millions of dollars in contributions (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
A Palestinian man holds a lock placed symbolically in protest around the main gate of the UNRWA office in the Israeli occupied West Bank city of Hebron on Jan. 17, 2018, after the White House froze tens of millions of dollars in contributions (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

 

  • The U.S. is slashing UNRWA funds by $65 million
  • The original amount was supposed to be $125 million
  • UNRWA supports 5.9 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East
  • Many of them view UNRWA as a lifeline they cannot afford to lose

 

Ghada Ahmedi cannot recall life in Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camp of Mar Elias without the services of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees.

As a child, her family used to regularly gather to eat a hot meal at one of UNRWA’s restaurants – a service that has long been suspended due to lack of funds.

Now a 40-year-old mother of two, Ahmedi still thinks of UNRWA as a lifeline that many Palestinians cannot afford to lose.

“My children – just like I did – go to UNRWA schools,” Ahmedi said. “We rely on UNRWA for everything, from hospitals to legal advice.”

The U.S. State Department reportedly notified UNRWA Tuesday that it is withholding $65 million of a planned $125 million funding installment to the body.

The United States is UNRWA’s biggest financial backer and previously provided over one-third of the organization’s total funding.

UNRWA supports 5.9 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

In Lebanon, the first official census of Palestinian refugees, conducted in December 2017, found 174,422 refugees to be living in the country’s 12 camps and “gatherings.”

The UNRWA Lebanon branch, however, has a total of 469,331 Palestinians refugees registered as eligible for its services.

While this number “is not a headcount of the population,” as UNRWA’s spokesperson Huda Samra previously said, it is indicative of how many people have the right to potentially access UNRWA’s assistance in Lebanon.

NGOs and government officials have warned in recent weeks of dire repercussions for Palestinian refugees if the cuts were to become a reality.

“Reducing funds to UNRWA will achieve nothing except push millions of Palestinians further into poverty and despair,” NRC Secretary-General Jan Egeland said in a statement. “Threatening to cut aid for political purposes to millions of civilians who need it is what we’ve come to expect of undemocratic regimes, not the world’s biggest humanitarian donor.”

In Tripoli’s Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared, Melad Sameer Salameh, a 38-year-old resident, expressed his concerns over the prospect of seeing the agency’s services cut to the bone.

“If it happens, it will spark a fire among the Palestinian people,” he said. While he does not himself benefit from the aid, as he prefers to “leave it for those who need it the most,” he fears the cuts could stoke Palestinian tensions and plunge his camp into a situation of unrest similar to that of 2007.

Fierce fighting between the Lebanese Army and members of the militant group Fatah al-Islam destroyed most of the Nahr al-Bared camp in 2007 and displaced thousands of residents. Over the course of three months, nearly 95 percent of the camp was razed to the ground and most of its near-20,000 residents were forced to flee.

 

 

The conflict left the camp, officially home to more than 31,000 Palestinian refugees, a mostly uninhabitable jumble of perforated concrete. A total of 168 Lebanese soldiers, more than 220 militants and at least 20 civilians died in the 15 weeks of fighting.

Earlier this week, Matthias Schmale, UNRWA’s director in Gaza, told reporters that “we are worried because ... the money has not arrived yet.”

UNRWA’s dire financial situation prompted recurring appeals in recent years on the part of the organization, which lacks a self-generated financial base or a U.N. assessment-based contribution system.

According to reports issued by UNRWA, the failure of the Oslo Accords, coupled with the increased need for humanitarian assistance in different parts of the world after the Cold War, led the ad hoc Palestinian agency to a setback in its funding.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump also reignited the controversy over UNRWA’s mandate, which Israel sees as unlawfully legitimizing new generations of Palestinians as refugees and thus promoting their claim to the “right of return.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put forward earlier this month a proposal to channel U.S. UNRWA funds toward the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR.

This was not welcomed by Palestinians in Lebanon, who also see the Palestinian refugee agency as providing legitimacy to their cause.

“We are against the transfer of UNRWA’s mandate to the UNHCR,” said Leila al-Ali, executive director of the NGO Najdeh and longtime Palestinian political activist. “This would mean the cancelation of the ‘right of return’ and a shift toward resettlement into third countries.”

According to Ali, whose organization conducts a number of projects across Lebanon in collaboration with UNRWA, even the prospect of cuts by the Trump administration has had an impact.

“UNRWA [seems to have] stopped the recruitment of new staff, especially in its main activities, which are health and education,” Ali said, adding that this would negatively affect the quality of their services.

Last year, a wide group of Palestinian organizations in Lebanon met to discuss their reactions to further UNRWA cuts, according to Ali.

“We decided not to step up our assistance, first because we cannot afford it and second because it is the responsibility of the international community to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees,” she said, adding that the decision still holds in the light of the new U.S. stance.

However, Mohammad Hassan, a 38-year-old resident of Nahr al-Bared, said the situation was not sustainable even before Trump’s cuts.

“I don’t have any right to work in this country, I have a lot of experience working in relief projects but I cannot work,” he said, referring to the state’s prohibition on Palestinians working in dozens of professions.

“We cannot go on like this.”

 

This article has been adapted from its original source.


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