President Donald Trump began 2018 by slashing U.S. foreign aid, and it seems that Palestinian refugees are bearing the brunt of the consequences.
The U.S. provides funding to Palestinian refugees through the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). In 2018, the State Department has cut funding by more than half, providing only $60 million out of an expected $125 million. As UNRWA’s largest donor, the U.S. contributes nearly 30 percent of its budget.
This budget cut disproportionately affects Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria because UNRWA has lost all U.S. funding for education and health services in these countries. Five million Palestinian refugees across Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip rely on UNRWA education and health services. It is estimated that 700 UNRWA schools and 525,000 children could be affected by the funding cuts.
One of the many schools affected by U.S. funding cuts is the Galilee Secondary School in Beirut, Lebanon. While students there seem to enjoy recess and socializing as much as any teenagers, they have a poignant understanding of what is now at risk. An eleventh grader named Sally Sabah expressed her anger by telling a CNN reporter, “It’s a violation of our human rights, which America claims to teach us…. They’re going to take away the thing that we care about the most, which is our education.” For years, the U.S. has encouraged education of refugees through the UN, emphasizing education as a means of escaping poverty and improving society.
Trump’s retraction of support not only challenges the perception of U.S. commitment but also leaves the lives of Palestinian children vulnerable to the volatile environment of the region. Many of the refugees live in areas torn-apart by violence from the Syrian Civil War or fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Regional extremist organizations look to recruit younger locals who can add to their forces.
The rollback of educational support affects not only children but also many adults who work as teachers under UNRWA. As the largest non-government employer in the Gaza Strip, UNRWA provides over 12,000 adults with teaching jobs.
While the education sector is facing the most dramatic changes, cuts in U.S. funding will also place strain on the food and recreational services provided by UNRWA. In Syria alone, UNRWA attempts to reach about 400,000 Palestinians. The UNs reports that 95 percent of Palestinians in Syria are “in critical need of sustained humanitarian assistance.”
Before U.S. funding cuts, Palestinians were already at odds with Trump over his December 2017 decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognize the city as the country’s capital. This created feelings of betrayal and injustice in the Palestinian community, which responded with protests in several Middle Eastern cities. The international community voiced overwhelming disapproval of the U.S. funding cuts and several states responded by initiating emergency donations. Israel, however, is the sole voice of approval. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has advocated for the end of UNRWA all together.