A potential calamity is looming in the Middle East, a calamity of the United States’ making that is inimical to our interests and investments. I am referring to Donald Trump’s decision to slash a promised installment of funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)—the international agency responsible for the welfare of 5.6 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank—while effectively freezing additional funding for the foreseeable future.
The news dropped on January 16, when the State Department sent a letter to UNRWA announcing that it would be withholding $65 million of a planned $125 million payment to the agency. Two days later, the State Department announced that it would also be halting a $45 million payment it had pledged to UNRWA in December, in that case for food aid for the West Bank and Gaza. While a State Department spokesperson insisted that the cuts were “not aimed at punishing anyone,” punishment certainly seemed to be on Trump’s mind when he tweeted two weeks earlier, “with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?” The implication seemed clear: The Trump administration would slash aid to Palestinians as long as the Palestinian Authority (PA) refused to engage in US-backed negotiations with Israel.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider that the PA’s refusal to engage in negotiations stems entirely from Trump’s own actions—specifically, his formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; this move not only dismissed Palestinian claims to the city but effectively predetermined the outcome of future negotiations. Moreover, it should be noted that the entity through which the Trump administration is now exacting its punishment is a humanitarian agency, not a political one, and it has never been involved in any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet, despite its vital role, the Trump administration has opted to slash UNRWA’s resources, sparking what agency spokesperson Christopher Gunness described as “the most serious financial crisis in UNRWA’s 70-year history.”
This isn’t hyperbole. The United States contributes almost 30 percent of UNRWA’s annual budget, or $364 million a year. The loss of nearly a third of its budget, should the Trump administration continue to withhold payments, would force the agency to significantly scale back or suspend its services in many vital areas, or to move swiftly to persuade other donors to fill the gap. Even a partial defunding of UNRWA by the United States would have severe consequences.
As a start, UNRWA’s nearly 700 schools would probably have to close, depriving approximately 500,000 children across the Middle East of an education at a time when the stability that a moderate education provides is at a premium. The agency would also have to significantly decrease or even eliminate the 9 million health consultations that UNRWA doctors provide in 143 health centers each year. Moreover, many, if not most, of UNRWA’s 30,000 employees—most refugees themselves and supporting at least 150,000 people, including teachers, doctors, nurses, and social workers—would likely lose their jobs in the short term, or even permanently. And 1.7 million refugees who are already food insecure would have their food and cash assistance reduced or wholly terminated.