'Catastrophic' U.S. funding cut leaves UN agency scrambling to help Palestinians

In Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East, UN-run schools and medical clinics could be in jeopardy following a funding cut announced by the Trump Administration, writes Derek Stoffel.

UNRWA appeals to Canada and other nations to help make up budget shortfall

Students learn English at the Amari Basic Girls School in a Palestinian refugee camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah. The school is run by UNRWA. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Just days after classes began for half a million Palestinian students in the Middle East, there's an urgent warning that the school year could quickly come to an end thanks to a decision made in Washington.

The United Nations agency that assists Palestinian refugees and their descendants faces a funding shortfall of $217 million US following the announcement last week that the United States, its largest donor, is cancelling its financial support to the organization.

"It's catastrophic," said Chris Gunness, a spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

"Imagine a city — I don't know, Ottawa or Montreal — where the local authorities simply said there would be no schools, there would be no clinics. I mean, that's effectively what is going on," Gunness told CBC.

The U.S. State Department on Friday labelled UNRWA "irredeemably flawed," as top American officials accused the agency of inflating the number of Palestinians who are Palestinian refugees, with the right to return to their homes in what is now Israel. 

Palestinians demonstrated against the U.S. funding cut to UNRWA on Sept. 4 in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

As the Trump Administration puts the finishing touches on what the president has called "the ultimate deal" to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's believed the elimination of funding to UNRWA is part of a push to convince Palestinian leaders to drop demands for most of those refugees to return.

Israel welcomes decision

While some Israeli media outlets have reported that Israeli security officials have warned that defunding UNRWA could lead to unrest in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday welcomed the U.S. move.

"[The Palestinians] created a unique institution, 70 years ago, not to absorb the refugees but to perpetuate them. Therefore, the U.S. has done a very important thing by halting the financing for the refugee perpetuation agency known as UNRWA," he said.

Palestinian leaders have reacted with fury to Washington's decision to stop funding UNRWA. A spokesperson for President Mahmoud Abbas called the move an "assault" against his people.

A Palestinian carries bags of flour at an UNRWA-run food distribution centre in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

Part of daily life

UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced from their homes, or fled, after the creation of the state of Israel and the war that followed the year before. 

It now helps 5.4 million Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, with everything from education to food aid to medical care.

Walk through any of the Palestinian refugee camps — which are made up of permanent structures, rather than white tents usually associated with such camps — and the UN's robin's-egg blue flag is a common sight at schools and on garbage trucks. 

In the medical clinic in the Amari Camp, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, patients told CBC that they worry about where their children will be treated if the facility is closed.

A doctor examines Alaa Atiyeh at the Amari Medical Clinic, located in a Palestinian refugee camp near Ramallah. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"This clinic is everything for us, and we are not able to get treatment anywhere else," said Alaa Atiyeh, who came in to have a doctor look at some broken ribs. "The medicine is expensive outside, and the doctors will cost a lot."

Appeal to donors

Gunness, the UNRWA spokesperson, said the agency is calling on all its donors, including Canada, "to step forward with funding because, to be clear, we opened our schools just a few days ago, but we only have enough money to run them until the end of September."

"And at that point, UNRWA is running on empty."

Canada announced an extra $10 million in funding to UNRWA earlier this year, following a previous cut to the agency's budget from the U.S. The Trudeau government restored Canada's contribution to UNRWA in 2016, initially giving the agency $25 million.

The Conservative government of Stephen Harper cut funding to UNRWA in 2009, alleging the organization had links to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.