On Saturday morning, millions of Palestinian refugees woke up to the news that UNRWA, the UN agency that, for generations now, has provided them with essential services from education and jobs to food assistance, was one step closer to the brink of collapse.
As some 5 million Palestinian refugees — the descendants of those who were forcibly expelled from their homes when Israel was created in 1948 — laid there heads to bed the night before, in cramped refugee camps across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the occupied West Bank and Gaza, the US had decided to cut all of its funding to UNRWA.
In Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, home to some 6,000 refugees registered with UNRWA, chatter spilled from people’s living rooms, through their windows, and into the narrow streets.
“Do you think the kids will go to school tomorrow?” a woman asked. “May God help us,” another could be heard saying. All across the camp, televisions and smartphones blasted with the news, each one broadcasting a different Arab commentator’s take on the situation.
Nagham al-Jaf’s home was no different. Al-Jaf, 43, originally from Iraqi Kurdistan, has lived in Aida camp for the better part of 25 years. Her husband is the child of refugees from the Jerusalem-area village of Deir Aban.
“We first started noticing the problems with UNRWA around two years ago,” she told Mondoweiss, as she sat in the small courtyard next to her apartment, surrounded by water tanks.
“First they started reducing the food assistance programs, then, they started reducing the number of agency jobs that they gave to people in the camps. Then we noticed it in the clinics. They wouldn’t have the medicines we needed, or wouldn’t cover us for procedures and medicines that they used to,” she said.
“And now, the next thing that’s going to get cut is the schools.”
Al-Jaf is the mother of six children — two of whom still attend the UN primary schools in the camp, which are run by UNRWA.
Like many other parents in the camp, al-Jaf wasn’t sure the school would open its doors for the school year, which began a few days ago, because of prior US funding cuts to UNRWA, and are not sure they will reopen after the weekend.
“Our kids used to go to school with around 20 kids per classroom. Now, in my son’s classes, there are more than 40 kids in each room,” she said. “How are they supposed to learn like this?”
“Even the teachers are not stable. They used to get yearly contracts, now they get monthly contracts, and are scared each month that they won’t have a job the next day,” she said, the frustration in her voice mounting.
She says all of her friends have the same laundry list of concerns. Will the schools shut down? If so, where will the kids go? They surely don’t have enough money to afford the private schools in Bethlehem. Even the public schools, which al-Jaf says are a 15 minute drive away from the camp, are unaffordable.
“If UNRWA leaves its hands from the camp, and from the schools, we won’t be able to survive, not at all,” al-Jaf said.
Friday’s cuts are the latest in a series of devastating blows delivered by the Trump administration to the Palestinians over the past year. Just last week, the US announced that it would be cutting over $200 million initially intended for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to use for projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
In July, chaos erupted in Gaza after UNRWA announced that it would be laying off hundreds of its employees as a direct result of not being able to recover from the massive US budget cuts this year.
Earlier this year, the US cut its aid to UNRWA to $60 million from a promised $350 million for the year, saying the agency needed to make unspecified reforms and calling on the Palestinians to renew peace talks with Israel.
Despite repeated condemnations by Palestinian and international officials who have deemed the Trump administration’s tactics as “coercion” and “blackmailing” the Palestinians into accepting a less than optimal US-brokered peace deal with Israel, US officials have maintained such rhetoric in the days leading up to Friday’s announcement.
During a talk earlier this week with a pro-Israel think tank in Washington D.C., US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley agreed with the moderator who said that UNRWA “overcounts their numbers.”
She went on to say that the US would work with the agency again in the event that it “reforms what it does” and “if they actually change the number of refugees to an accurate account.”
The majority of the 5 million registered refugees with UNRWA are descendants of the estimated 750,000 refugees who were forcibly displaced from Palestine in 1948.
Haley went on to question the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their homelands — something that has largely been classified as a “final status” issue in the event of a peace agreement — and agreed with the moderator when he asked if the right of return should be “taken off the table.”
The desire of the US government to vastly reduce the number of registered refugees from 5 million to a few hundred thousand, is perhaps one of the biggest insults to Palestinian refugees, who view the right of return as one of, if not the most important, parts of their identity.
Dr. Abed al-Fattah Abu Srour, the director of one of several youth centers in Aida camp, spoke to Mondoweiss, saying that part of UNRWA’s responsibility to Palestinian refugees, is to reaffirm their identity as refugees through the agency’s work.
“UNRWA should not cease its operations until every refugee is given the choice to return to their homeland and the villages that were erased off the map in 1948. No facts on the ground can change this right to return,” he said.
“The right of return is a collective right, and an individual right as well,” Abu Srour, whose family is originally from the Hebron-area village of Beit Nattif, said.
“I have the right to choose if I want to return or not. It should not be a dictation from the Israelis, the Americans, or even the Palestinian Authority itself,” he said.
“The Americans can say whatever they want. That does not give them the right to decide, on our behalf, what is on the table of negotiations and what is not.”
In the announcement on Friday, the State Department reportedly criticized what it called UNRWA’s “irredeemably flawed operation” and “way of doing business.”
UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness responded to the statement, saying “we reject in the strongest possible terms the criticism that UNRWA’s schools, health centers, and emergency assistance programs are ‘irredeemably flawed’.”
Gunness went on to say that “these very programs have a proven track record in creating one of the most successful human development processes and results in the Middle East,” highlighting the World Bank’s recognition of UNRWA “for running one of the most effective school systems in the region, in which students regularly outperform their peers in public schools.”
He added that despite cuts from the US, which was previously the largest donor to the agency, UNRWA would continue to fundraise and work with existing donor countries to “provide high-quality services and assistance to over 5.4 M Palestine refugees.”
UNRWA currently runs 702 schools for Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, providing education to more than 500,000 students, and employing close to 22,000 teachers and staff.
According to the agency, around 1.5 million individuals — nearly one-third of the registered Palestine refugees — live in 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
UNRWA maintains schools, health clinics and distribution centers in and outside of the camps, where “socioeconomic conditions are generally poor, with high population density, cramped living conditions and inadequate basic infrastructure such as roads and sewers.”
With the organization scrambling to stay afloat, international and local officials have expressed fear that the recent budget cuts will aggravate an already dire humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, particularly in Gaza.
Gaza is home to more than 2 million Palestinians, over 70% of whom are refugees, and due to the crippling Israeli siege, Gaza’s economy has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world at 44 percent, leaving an estimated 80 percent of the territory’s population dependent on humanitarian assistance from organizations like UNRWA.
Gaza has often been compared to an “open air prison,” and in 2015, the UN warned that the it could become “unlivable” by 2020 if nothing was done to improve the situation.