Last year, President Trump drastically cut funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA is mere weeks away from running out of money for essential aid programs provided to 5.4 million Palestinian refugees.
Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, joined The Real News Network’s Ben Norton to discuss the impact Trump’s cuts are already having, and how this could end up being a humanitarian catastrophe that makes life nearly impossible for many Palestinians.
“This is an absolute disaster,” said Bennis, referring to $300 million (80 percent) being cut from UNRWA this year.
UNRWA, explained Bennis, is dependent on donations from countries that are member states of the UN.
Understanding the larger context of these cuts is critical. Some of these families are being displaced “a sixth, or even seventh time in their lives,” said Bennis.
The cuts aren’t just affecting food aid and education.
On the brink of closing due to cuts are programs for “psychosocial assistance for children” in Gaza, which aim to address serious mental and emotional issues resulting from “the series of Israeli wars against Gaza,” Also on the chopping block are “work for cash programs” in the West Bank that provide people the means to pay for food and housing, among other necessities.
“80 percent of the population [in Gaza] are refugees, and of those, 80 percent are completely dependent of UNRWA,” said Bennis.
UNRWA is also the largest employer of Palestinians in the region.
“Unlike most other UN aid agencies,” according to Bennis, “UNRWA’s staff is more than 99 percent Palestinian.” In an area where unemployment is officially between 30 and 40 percent, and “unofficially, it can go up to 80 percent at times,” the impact these cuts are having on this already struggling economy are drastic. In that context, argues Bennis, “the loss of all of these jobs is absolutely devastating.”
As Norton points out, several Israeli officials, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have publicly called for UNRWA to be shut down. However, “behind the scenes, Israel has actually been trying very hard to keep UNRWA operating smoothly,” said Norton.
Why would Israel want UNRWA to stay afloat?
“The reality,” said Bennis, is that if UNRWA were dismantled, “Israel would be required to provide for the basic needs of the Palestinian population living under occupation under the terms of the Geneva Convention.”
Of course, Israel, added Bennis, “also acknowledges that in their view, there is no applicability of the Geneva Convention because they don’t acknowledge that the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem are occupied territory. Their language is these are ‘disputed’ territories.”
Bennis closed by suggesting that, although Israel would technically be on the hook for providing Palestinians with some sort of aid, their failure to do so would likely result in zero repercussions due to the U.S. backing them up in the international arena.