This week, 59 members of Congress sent a letter to the Trump administration raising the alarm on the urgency of the U.S. government reinstating already appropriated money for humanitarian assistance for Palestinians, including to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, otherwise known as UNRWA.
In early 2018, the Trump administration made a short-sighted and risky political decision to pressure the Palestinian leadership by abruptly withholding humanitarian assistance to Palestinians, including UNRWA. Two years later, as COVID-19 devastates countries across the globe, the true costs of this administration’s miscalculated gamesmanship are becoming clear.
What was aimed at political leaders is now punishing innocent civilians. The humanitarian conditions in crowded refugee camps and densely populated neighborhoods in the West Bank and Gaza, which were already of great concern to the international community, are being exacerbated both by the current public health crisis and the lack of available funding to use in response.
The United States recently announced plans to provide a pittance of $5 million in humanitarian assistance to Palestinians amid the pandemic. This aid will be allocated via USAID. None of this money will go toward the 5.6 million Palestine refugees to whom UNRWA provides life-saving support.
There are, however, already designated, ample funds that could be used to help vulnerable Palestinians confront the threat of coronavirus — in the form of money already appropriated by Congress through established funding channels for FY2020 — but these funds are being withheld by the Trump administration.
Humanitarian assistance should never be politicized, and certainly not when a pandemic threatens millions of lives. If the Trump administration is willing to send aid to North Korea and has offered to bolster Iran’s response to the coronavirus, then why has it failed to deploy sufficient and meaningful assistance already allocated by Congress to Palestine refugees in dire need?
How many must die before the administration will have the human decency to take the simple step of releasing available funds?
Moreover, the United States’ refusal to live up to its humanitarian obligations not only threatens Palestinians – it endangers Israelis and the region at large. In the national security context, the Middle East is sometimes referred to as a “neighborhood.” If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that if one group in the neighborhood falls ill, the entire neighborhood becomes less safe. This is a virus undeterred by borders and walls. That is why Israelis and Palestinians are independently engaging in “unprecedented cooperation on efforts aimed at containing the epidemic.”
However, without the U.S. funds relied on by UNRWA to maintain public health for Palestine refugees, any effective health partnership will quickly become unsustainable. If the U.S. government truly cares about Israel’s security, it should be doing all it can to minimize this unprecedented pandemic in the region.
UNRWA has decades of experience providing life-saving health and psycho-social services to millions of people in emergency situations. Nevertheless, the impacts of COVID-19 could push the organization past the brink of collapse due to the funding crisis the United States instigated in 2018.
It is worth remembering that up until 2018, the United States served as the single largest donor to Palestine refugees, providing critical assistance to schools, primary healthcare services, and emergency food in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Notwithstanding the global health crisis in which we now find ourselves, these services are always crucial in the absence of a political solution that would allow for states and other entities to better help these refugees.
For most regions hosting a large number of refugees in the time of COVID-19, the primary challenge is establishing the infrastructure necessary to provide adequate services. UNRWA, on the other hand, already has established healthcare facilities and emergency response services that it maintains for Palestine refugees living in the Middle East. The Agency has operated for decades through conflict and wars, blockades and occupation, and is currently leveraging its on-the-ground expertise to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Social distancing is practically impossible in refugee camps, and coronavirus cases are on the rise in UNRWA areas of operation. The Agency is working in close coordination with the World Health Organization – to which the United States has also recently suspended funding – to isolate, test, and treat all possible patients, and to trace all contacts. UNRWA has 3,300 staff members at 144 health centers on the frontlines combating the spread of the virus as the main, and sometimes sole, provider of primary health care to Palestine refugees. UNRWA is one of the only entities standing between a tragic COVID-19 outbreak among Palestine refugees and safe passage to the other side of this crisis. However, it can only continue doing so with adequate funding.
At the start of the coronavirus’s spread last month, UNRWA issued an emergency appeal for an additional $14 million to prepare and respond to COVID-19 over an initial three-month period. It is essential that UNRWA have access to a reliable stream of funding not only to manage COVID-19, but also to sustain its core services, including the provision of food aid and cash, self-learning education and training programs, and the maintenance of essential infrastructure.
In the absence of additional contributions, UNRWA will soon begin running short of funding to sustain all its vital operations. This risks not only an increase in human suffering, but the potential for further unrest in an already troubled region. Israel itself should be pushing Washington to provide this vital support.