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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Attempts to cripple UNRWA are reprehensible

Cynical budget cuts by the US are a blatant attempt to blackmail Palestinians

Palestinian refugee children play in Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. Mohammed Saber / EPA 
Palestinian refugee children play in Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. Mohammed Saber / EPA 

Since its formation nearly 70 years ago, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has been a vital safety net for Palestinian refugees forced from their homes by Israel’s creation and their descendants. Today it provides education, healthcare and social services to more than five million Palestinians.

Yet the administration of US President Donald Trump on Friday decided to cut more than $200 million in funding to the agency, a move that could cost lives and livelihoods. Those in need of urgent healthcare might be denied it; schools could be forced to shut. Despite its ceaseless work, the agency is already short of funds. Earlier this year, 100 employees were laid off in Gaza alone.

It is not hard to see why the US administration would attempt to cripple the body, which advocates a right to return for Palestinian refugees, because any agency that provides a voice for Palestinians is a threat to its powerful Israeli lobby. When announcing the cuts in favour of "high priority projects elsewhere", the US State Department claimed it was made on the basis of "Hamas control" endangering "the lives of Gaza's citizens".

Such an assertion should be seen for what it is: a cynical attempt to influence public opinion when the reality on the ground is the continued brutalisation and victimisation of Palestinians at the hands of their Israeli oppressors, which the UNRWA tries relentlessly to combat by providing hope and opportunity in the face of despair.

Cutting its funding should also be seen for exactly what it is: punishment for Palestinians for refusing to give up their right to East Jerusalem as a capital.

It is intended to blackmail them into accepting the as-yet-opaque peace plan Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's son-in-law, is cooking up with his fellow Middle East representative Jason Greenblatt. Judging by the unilateral way the US embassy move to Jerusalem was carried out, effectively recognising it as the capital of Israel, it is unlikely to have the welfare of Palestinians at its heart.

Indeed Hanan Ashrawi, of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, has already branded the move “cheap blackmail” while UNRWA chief Pierre Kraehenbuehl said it would punish those most in need.

If there is any vestige of doubt that the US is conspiring with Israel to dismantle hopes of Palestinian statehood, it should dissipate entirely. The cut to funding is reprehensible. More than 170 Palestinian protesters have been killed in the last five months, including medics and journalists.

But beyond the loss of life, humanitarian organisations cannot be used as political tools. When conflict and occupation prevent governments from providing for their citizens, agencies such as UNRWA deliver a vital service. In few places is that role more important than in Gaza and the West Bank, where millions live in deprivation. As Mr Kraehenbuehl stated: “You cannot simply wish five million people away.”

For the Palestinian people, the funding cuts are merely the latest in a long list of moves by the US and its Israeli ally that push hopes of statehood further out of reach.