US Cuts To Palestine Aid: Ruthless, But ‘Right of Return’ Grows Stronger


Donald Trump might be bad for the US, but he’s even worse for Palestine. Lee Rhiannon explains.

January 2019 is shaping up as one of the cruellest months Palestinians have faced in decades of abuse and oppression. US President Donald Trump’s decision to end all aid funding that benefits Palestinians takes effect at the end of this month.

While this decision will result in extreme hardship for millions living in refugee camps, the key purpose is to recast Israel-Palestine politics by eliminating the issue of Palestinian refugees.

In 2018 the US government reduced its funding for aid and development projects to assist Palestinians by more than $US500 million. Also last year UNRWA – the UN agency set up in 1949 to support Palestinian refugees and their descendants – had the funding it receives from the Trump administration cut in half.

From 1 February 2019 no UN agencies or the US Agency for International Development will receive any US government money for projects that benefit Palestinians. Money from the US makes up about one quarter of the total funds UNRWA receives annually.

The US move against humanitarian and development aid assistance to Palestine is part of the Trump-Kushner “deal of the century” for the Middle East. Both are backers of Israel’s takeover of Palestinian territory. Jared Kushner is Trump’s real estate developer son-in-law and is the US envoy to the Middle East.

The centrepiece of the deal is the defunding of UNRWA. The disbanding of this organisation has long been a focus of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other supporters of Israel who claim that UNRWA perpetuates the status of Palestinians as refugees.

The United Nations General Assembly set out the mandate and responsibilities of UNRWA and approved the definition of Palestinian refugee that covers all people who fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948 and their descendants.

Eliminating the very notion of Palestinian refugees has long been central to the Zionist push to discredit the ‘right of return’ movement. Their narrative relies on the simplistic premise that the Palestinian refugee problem will be solved by changing the definition of a Palestinian refugee to exclude all but those that fled or were forcibly exiled in 1948. A solution that would after 70 years effectively nullify the right of return.

Prior to the Trump era the US was the largest aid donor to UNRWA. When Trump’s anti-Palestine edict becomes absolute, the impact will be felt immediately. Work will stop on a number of partially completed critical education, water and sewage infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Gaza. Funding will dry up for the welfare of millions of refugees living inside 1967 Occupied Territories and in camps in surrounding countries. The situation is dire. The need for international solidarity with Palestine is more urgent than ever.

UNRWA spokesperson, Chris Gunness, told Al Jazeera that the US cuts will affect “millions of people” including “some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised on this planet”. UNRWA provides services to about five million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr Gunness said, “Let there be no mistake; this decision is likely to have a devastating impact on the lives of 526,000 children who receive a daily education from UNRWA; 3.5 million sick people who come to our clinics for medical care; 1.7 million food insecure people who receive assistance from us, and tens of thousands of vulnerable women, children and disabled refugees who come to us.”

In Gaza, which a UN report determined would be unliveable by 2020, 80 per cent of the two million residents are dependent on international aid. Young Gazans go to UN schools, residents rely on UN and NGO funded health clinics, thousands are in paid UN jobs and the 60 per cent unemployed receive welfare from UNWRA. Dispossession, occupation and an ongoing brutal blockade of Gaza led by the State of Israel has meant that international aid is their only means of survival.

Senator Lee Rhiannon, pictured in the Bourj Al Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, in March 2018.

The Trump decision to stop all aid funding will waste millions of dollars already spent on partially completed projects that will be left abandoned. The people of Jericho, a West Bank city near the Jordan River, are about to see the partially completed water and sewage infrastructure that has already cost millions of dollars buried under asphalt. This has been forced on locals who have been forced to restore the roads dug up for the project.

Only about 15 per cent of the city of Jericho’s 20,000 residents are connected to the sewage treatment plant. The threat of disease from untreated effluent seeping into groundwater remains a serious problem – particularly after a heavy rain.

USAID officials and the US Ambassador to Israel have gone to great lengths to ensure this project was completed, but that hope has now faded. US National Public Radio reported that some officials in US government agencies believe Mr Kushner was the one who refused to allow funding to be released, ensuring the project would not be completed.

A $1.4 million partially completed school in Bethlehem for young Palestinian refugees may soon be demolished. American Near East Refugee Aid, the group that had been funded by USAID to build the school, had hoped that a proposal for emergency funding to complete the project would be released before the end of January shut down on all funding that assists Palestinians. National Public Radio reports that they have been shown an email that shows the White House rejected this plan, despite the fact it was supported by the US Ambassador to Israel.

Palestinians rely on international assistance and there are still millions of Palestinian refugees as Israel for 70 years has denied Palestinians their rights, destroyed their economy and committed “crimes against humanity”. The US aid cuts are the latest form of collective punishment that Palestinians have been subjected to.

While this is a new and vicious chapter in the history of Palestine one thing that this history demonstrates is that Palestinians will continue to resist until their demands for justice are met. Further oppression and poverty will not end their demand for justice. The ongoing Great March of Return protests on the Gaza border are the latest testimony to this endurance.

Lee Rhiannon, a former Greens Senator, has visited Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East. Her three trips to the region were self-funded.