President Trump’s crackdown on aid for Palestinian refugees may be far more staggering in scope than originally thought, new reports indicate.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, is begging for help following a dramatic loss in funding after the United States slashed contributions to the organization, which deals with issues affecting Palestinian refugees. In January, the United States announced that it would withhold $65 million in pledged UNRWA funding. Originally, U.S. officials had promised to disburse a total of $125 million in aid funding.
Addressing an emergency conference in Rome, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday that U.S. cuts leave the more than 5 million Palestinians currently living under occupation and elsewhere in a dire situation. Many already lack access to education, health care, and a number of basic necessities, a gap UNRWA traditionally attempts to fill.
“If UNWRA did not exist, if its services were not provided, the security of the region would be undermined,” Guterres cautioned. “[Cutting aid funding would have] severe impacts — a cascade of problems that could push the suffering in disastrous and unpredictable directions.”
UNRWA’s problems stem from the Trump administration’s broader approach to regional politics. While Trump has called peace between Israelis and Palestinians the “ultimate deal,” the White House has struggled to establish a concrete plan for dialogue between the two groups. Trump is also a close ally of hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an alliance that has jeopardized U.S. relations with Palestinian officials.
In December, Trump declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and signaled that the U.S. embassy would be moved there from Tel Aviv, a controversial decision that sparked uproar throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. The United Nations overwhelmingly voted to reject the declaration and Palestinian officials warned that the move symbolized an end to any potential peace talks, saying Trump has crossed “a red line.”
That went over poorly with the White House. At the time, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley warned that there would be harsh retributions for any nations or groups opposing the United States. A month later, the United States announced cuts to UNRWA’s funding.
In the time since, the organization has floundered, facing the biggest funding crisis in its 68-year history. When the United States slashed the organization’s budget, Haley argued it was time for other countries to step up and offer more aid — the United States has historically supplied around 30 percent of UNRWA’s budget. She also claimed that future U.S. funding would be contingent on Palestinian officials agreeing to new peace talks.
That hasn’t happened. U.N. officials called Thursday’s meeting in Rome largely to drum up support for UNRWA from other countries as the organization grows increasingly desperate. UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl has warned that without additional funds, his organization won’t be able to do its work — leaving millions of people in a precarious position.
So far, officials in Rome have generated upwards of $100 million in pledges, which won’t solve the problem, but will buy UNRWA some time. “It will last us a couple of months more into the middle or beginning of the summer,” Krähenbühl said. “We need to be optimistic.”
“A very important first stop was reached today, but a long way is in front of us,” Guterres added.
Others made it clear that while contributions from other nations should be expected, the loss of U.S. funding would likely remain unmatched. “When any agency depends on a single donor it is a vulnerability,” Sweden’s U.N. ambassador, Olof Skoog, explained. He noted that his country and others would step up — but that Sweden and the rest of the world “expect the United States to stay committed” to UNRWA’s work.
The extent of that commitment may be known sooner rather than later. The Trump administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan is reportedly in its final stages and officials have indicated that it will soon be released. It is unclear when the plan will be released, or if it will contain funding for UNRWA.