Week 33: U.S. Role in Palestine

August 19 is World Humanitarian Day. As we advocate for the “safety and security of humanitarian aid workers, and for the survival, well-being and dignity of people affected by crises” around the world, it is not without irony that we analyze U.S. cuts to humanitarian aid to Palestine and the Palestinians. Here’s what you need to know about the cuts and how we can work together to rise up.

Topic: U.S. Role in Palestine

In the mid-1990s, following the signing of the Oslo Agreements when a two-state solution seemed within reach, the Clinton Administration began providing bilateral economic assistance to the newly-established Palestinian Authority (PA). Since 1994 the United States has provided over $5 billion in economic assistance to the Palestinian people. However, after the election of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections, the United States Congress imposed restriction after restriction on how humanitarian aid could be provided to the Palestinian territories. A series of executive decisions on the part of the White House and the passage of two key congressional acts in 2018 have brought this process to a radical culmination—U.S. humanitarian aid to Palestine has for all practical purposes been terminated. 

The United States has provided humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories both directly through U.S. foreign aid programs and indirectly by funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which exclusively assists Palestinian refugees. 

UNRWA has been the sole United Nations agency tasked with providing relief to Palestinian refugees. Since its first year of operation in 1950, the United States has funded UNRWA and historically has been its largest contributor. Today, 5 million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza are eligible for UNRWA’s services, which include 711 schools serving 526,000 students, 143 primary healthcare facilities meeting the needs of 3.1 million patients, and food and cash subsidies for 292,000 people living in abject poverty. A quarter of UNRWA’s budget for these programs in the past has come from U.S. government funding. 

In January 2018, in response to the Palestinian Authority’s protests against the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the Trump Administration announced that it would withhold $60 million of a scheduled $125 million payment. Later in September, any hopes of reversing this decision were dashed when the President announced that all U.S. funding for UNRWA would be discontinued until the agency adjusted its definition of a refugee to include only individuals who were displaced during the Nakba in 1949. Consequently, the U.S. contribution to UNRWA in 2018 was reduced to $65 million—down from $360 million in 2017.    

Most bilateral aid is paid out of the Economic Support Fund (ESF). One of the most vital humanitarian programs administered through the ESF is USAID. USAID provides grants to not-for-profits in the Palestinian Territories. Catholic Relief Services manages a program called Envision Gaza 2020 that provides emergency food and basic needs as well as employment opportunities in Gaza. About 144,000 people utilized these services this past year. Gaza 2020: Health Matters is a vital healthcare service run by the International Medical Corps, CARE, and Mercy Corps. Health Matters provides treatment for over 20,000 people. Mercy Corp also receives USAID grants for its Positive Youth Engagement program that helps around 50,000 Palestinian youth develop life skills needed for a better future. Lastly, American Near East Refugee Aid maintains water treatment and sanitation services in Gaza. 

In 2018, the Trump Administration enacted draconian measures to suspend or redirect bilateral ESF humanitarian aid. The Taylor Force Act, which became law in March, places all ESF funds that “directly benefit” the PA on hold until the PA ends the practice of providing pensions to the families of fighters arrested or killed resisting the Israeli occupation. The Trump Administration then opted in September to reprogram $230 million of USAID funds that had already been allocated by Congress in 2017. But by far the most devastating restriction was the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act of 2018 passed in October. It makes governments who accept U.S. bilateral aid liable to terrorism-related lawsuits filed in U.S. courts. This act almost assures that the PA will decline all U.S. bilateral aid in the future, since the damages they could have to pay exceed the total amount of U.S. aid. The Trump Administration hopes that this pressure will force the PA back to the negotiating table. In the process, these acts needlessly jeopardize the lives of millions.  

Simultaneously, while the United States has used humanitarian aid dollars to blackmail Palestine to the negotiating table, it has offered a nearly unlimited flow of cash in support of Israel, primarily through military aid. See Week 19: U.S. Support of Israel for more information. This military aid totaled $3.8 billion in 2019 alone, and Israel also received about $8 billion in loan guarantees. While almost all U.S. support of Israel is now through military aid, past contributions also included substantial economic support. Contrast this to the $5 to 6 billion dollars, in total, that the U.S. has contributed to Palestine since 1994. 

The coercive and lopsided involvement of the United States in Palestinian affairs does not, however, stop with aid dollars, and is perhaps most visible at the United Nations. In late-2016 President Obama made history by not doing something that he and his predecessors had done: utilize the United State’s veto power to block a Security Council resolution on Israel and Palestine. By abstaining, he allowed the Security Council to pass Resolution 2334, which reaffirmed that “Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity, constituting a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognized borders.”

In fact, “It was the first time in four decades that a U.N. resolution condemning Israel had passed.” Prior to this abstention, the United States had vetoed 42 resolutions critical of Israel’s action, most of which involved Israeli settlement or military activity in occupied Palestinian territory. Since the abstention by President Obama and the signing of Trump into office, the veto pen has returned to action. In December of 2017 the U.S. vetoed a resolution opposing the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and in 2018 it vetoed a resolution condemning Israeli violence against protesters during the Great March of Return. 

Through the week, Kumi Now will publish essays and stories from different organizations further exploring the impact of American policies and decisions on Palestine and highlighting what organizations are doing to expose the effects of aid cuts and fill the gap left behind. 

Essay contributed by Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).

Story: Victims of UNRWA funding cuts

“I haven’t just lost a job. I feel like I’ve lost my life,” says 39-year-old Raeda Younis, who has worked for UNRWA, the U.N. agency charged with aiding Palestinian refugees, for 16 years. 

Osama Naseer, 48, agrees. 

“It is our right to live in dignity like anyone else,” fumes the 17-year employee. “It is time to tear down the wall of silence and tell Donald Trump we will not surrender to his racist policies even if we die of hunger.”  

Raeda and Osama are among nearly 1,000 U.N. employees whose contracts were terminated or who will be transferred to part-time work by the end of the year. The cuts came after the U.S. government, UNRWA’s largest funder, eliminated its contribution of $125 million. And now, the agency says its schools and health centers might soon have to shut down.

In a territory with an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent, UNRWA jobs had been among the most stable and sufficiently paid. Many Gazans had been working for the agency for more than 20 years. Raeda first served for three years on an emergency team that helped out during crises, like during wars. Then she transferred to a school and became a counselor. She never dreamed she’d lose her job so suddenly. 

Raeda is the sole breadwinner for an eight-member family. All six of her children are in school and her eldest daughter recently graduated from high school, hoping to study English at university. Meanwhile, Raeda and her husband owe a local bank for money they borrowed to build their house.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to support my children while they are in school anymore or, most importantly, live with dignity,” says Raeda.

And then there is the impact on students, who no longer will receive the benefit of her counseling. In her position, she had focused her work on students with behavioral challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder and ADHD, or who were suffering from the effects of family problems such as neglect and divorce.

“The significance of my job isn’t only helping students socialize and express their creativity, but also strengthening their ability to cope with domestic violence at home, “ she adds. Students in Gaza, she explains, are assaulted by emotional challenges due to high rates of poverty, unemployment and violence, leading to poor academic performance.

There’s an African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Many people other than parents influence the development of a child into adulthood, and this is particularly important when the family environment is under such stress. Teachers and counselors can play a vital role. Raeda has served as both the “glue” for her own family and a support to many others.

 “As a mother and a refugee myself, I wonder about the impact when counseling is not available under the current circumstances,” she muses sadly. “How will students’ personality and behavior be affected? Most of the children suffer from depression and anxiety already. 

Osama too is a school counselor who had been the sole breadwinner for a large family (eight children). Neither he nor Raeda are old enough to receive the special assistance paid to employees terminated after the age of 50. Osama was so distraught when he was informed he had lost his job that he went on a hunger strike at UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters for two weeks.

Some members of the employees’ union proposed to UNRWA officials that one day’s pay be deducted from each remaining worker’s salary to set up an emergency fund for people like Raeda and Osama. However, local agency officers said that such an action was out of their sphere of authority. 

“From zero to hero is a common saying we hear,” says Osama. “That means if you work hard, you can achieve a lot. But the Israeli blockade and now the layoffs have changed the equation here,” says Osama. “I have sunk below zero due to loans and other debt I owe the banks. My family’s future is insecure and I do not know how to pay my children’s university tuition. UNRWA turned me from a teacher with dignity into a beggar.”

By Mahmoud Ramadan, an English literature graduate from Al-Azhar University of Gaza who was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp. Published as “‘I feel like I’ve lost my life,’ say victims of UNRWA funding cuts” for We Are Not Numbers.

Kumi Action

CMEP is especially concerned about the dire humanitarian situation facing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, especially those who are refugees both in the territories and abroad. If you are in the United States, we encourage you to reach out via email or phone to your members of Congress and urge them to continue and increase their humanitarian and economic assistance to Palestinians. As you may know, the Trump administration cut American aid to Palestine and the Biden administration restored some aid to Palestine in 2021 and announced further aid in July 2022. However, even this additional funding does not necessarily return aid to its historical levels. And as the last few years have proven, U.S. aid can be fickle; without constant reminding and reinforcement, the American government’s support of Palestinians can easily dry up again.

Let your elected officials know how important this aid is to Palestine, and that cutting services to the Palestinian people will only further exacerbate the crisis, leading us further away from a negotiated peace. While addressing humanitarian concerns cannot in and of itself resolve the political and economic injustices at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, these vital services offer the hope of education, healthcare, and employment to the most vulnerable members of Palestinian society.  

Furthermore, UNRWA shouldn’t have to rely on the American government for its funding. We can all get involved and can do so by using the UNRWA donations page.

We encourage you to work within your Kumi Community and with other Kumi Communities online to find the most creative ways to get your messages across. When you come up with a creative idea share it online using the hashtags #Aid4Gaza, #KumiNow, and #Kumi1. You will find more information on how to contact your government leaders and ambassadors on this page of the Kumi Now website.

Literature: A Prayer for Palestine

Lord, we pray for Palestinian refugees and the people of Gaza. May their needs always be provided. We pray for hungry, the homeless, the unemployed, and the sick of Palestine. May the last be first and the first be last. We pray for our leaders who have it in their power to alleviate suffering, that they may be led along the path of justice. Soften their hearts and let them be moved by your grace. Lord in your mercy … hear our prayer.

Prayer provided by CMEP.

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