The Unintended Consequences of Trump’s Palestinian Budget Cuts

By cutting aid to Palestinian refugees, the United States is undermining stability in the entire region.

Palestinian schoolgirls and women attend a protest in the southern Gaza Strip refugee camp of Rafah on March 8, 2010. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinian schoolgirls and women attend a protest in the southern Gaza Strip refugee camp of Rafah on March 8, 2010. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

When I was 19, I left the farm I grew up on in Iowa to serve in the U.S. Army, which I did proudly for 21 years. Soon after I left the military, I decided to continue public service — this time with the United Nations. For the last decade, I have worked in Gaza and the West Bank as a member of the U. N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides humanitarian and human development services to the refugees of Palestine. In both the military and in the Middle East, I have seen firsthand how instability can harm societies and cultures. It is much more cost-efficient to preempt instability than to have to address it once the situation is deteriorating; it also saves lives.

The population that UNRWA works with is highly vulnerable and dependent upon the international community to help feed their poor, educate their children, and care for their sick. One million Palestinians in Gaza alone survive on food provided by UNRWA. Our schools educate over half a million children in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank, and they have proven to be centers of excellence, consistently outperforming government schools in the region. All of our students receive education in human rights, nonviolent conflict resolution, and tolerance of differences.

But recent developments are jeopardizing the relative stability and security provided by UNRWA. Earlier this month, the U.S. government announced that it was reducing critical aid, saying it would provide only $60 million, for now, to support our efforts this year — an 83 percent reduction from its 2017 contribution of $360 million. Until this year, the United States had consistently provided one-third of the agency’s overall annual funding.

This announcement came as a shock to the agency, with no notice that the funding we have been able to rely on for decades would be massively decreased. In order to ensure continuity of food aid and other life-saving assistance to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, we initiated procurement processes in December and relied on funding pledged to our emergency assistance program to pay for and deliver the food.

The U.S. government has been our single largest donor and one of our most valued partners since we first began our operations in 1950; it has always made good on its word. It is part of the American legacy abroad to care for those in need and to not leave the most vulnerable behind. If the U.S. government fails to follow through on the generous support it has always provided to the Palestinian refugees we serve, not only will our operations be at stake, but millions of lives will also be in danger — and the very stability of an already volatile region will be at risk.

A world that is willing to watch as hungry children cannot access food, students are shut out of their schools, and mothers can no longer access prenatal care is not the world any of us want to live in.

The West Bank, where I am based, is an illustrative example of the challenges faced by refugees. Here, we see a people who have endured 50 years of occupation and 70 years of dispossession, with levels of vulnerability reaching unprecedented highs. The impoverished Bedouin communities in the occupied West Bank, for example, have been subjected to multiple displacements and home demolitions — and they now face the prospect of further disruptions in the form of a reduction or halt to our life-saving services.

UNRWA will do everything in its power to continue providing for those in need. This includes launching an unprecedented global fundraising campaign in which we are reaching out to a broad range of governmental donors, the private sector, foundations, charities, and individuals. Failure to make up the funding gap will mean service disruptions to food-insecure refugees, vulnerable children, mothers, the disabled, the sick, and the dying.

The people we serve want a future that offers their children the same peace and stability that I grew up with in Iowa. The services that UNRWA provides not only ensure a measure of security and stability for over 5 million human beings registered with UNRWA, but also provide them hope for the future — hope that they can one day enjoy the same rights and privileges that I enjoyed in the United States. Hope for peace and stability, the opportunity to continue their education and be part of the global community, and the chance to work and provide for their families. Hope that they will eventually see a just and lasting solution to 70 years of displacement and conflict.

Until then, the international community must continue to provide them with protection and assistance. Now is certainly not the time for any country to pull back from these longstanding commitments.

Scott Anderson is the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the West Bank and previous deputy director of UNRWA in Gaza.

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