Palestinians in Gaza react to huge US aid cuts
UNRWA, the main service provider for nearly 5.3 million Palestinian refugees, had already been facing a funding shortfall, but has now been plunged into crisis after the US announced it would cease its annual contributions of around $350 million.
UNRWA's services, which in total cost about $1 billion annually, go to help Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories - the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem - as well as in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
In June, UNRWA announced it would undertake austerity measures, aimed at coping with the funding crisis. These have already led to reduced emergency services in Gaza, which have been in place since the year 2000. Some 140 employees of long-standing emergency programmes have been laid off, while a hundred others have had their working hours cut to bare bones.
Other basis services that Palestinian refugees receive, mainly in Gaza, have begun to be affected by the UNRWA's austerity measures. The agency's education department has stopped providing new free-of-charge school books for tens of thousands of school children in Gaza. In the meantime, some surgical operations, supported by UNRWA funding, have had to be delayed or halted.
|The UNRWA services, mainly food rations, are vital for us, in order to get by. Suppose that the six packs of flour we receive every three months will come to a halt?|
UNRWA's services also include sanitation and delivering food rations to Palestinian refugees in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In Gaza alone, more than 80 percent of Gaza's 1.2 million refugees depend on regularly UNRWA food aid deliveries. Over the past couple of years, with Gaza's economy worsening because of the Israeli siege and the internal political split, UNRWA-provided services have become a lifeline for those refugee populations.
Palestinians on the streets and in political offices have expressed outrage at the US cut of funding, saying the decision has been politicised and aimed at extracting concessions from Palestinians in terms of Washington's plans for "peace" in the region.
In the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood of Gaza City, where a majority of the population are refugees displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948, residents reacted angrily.
Um Mahmoud Aldeiry, originally from the Palestinian town of Asdud - now known as Ashdod, Israel's largest port town - about 50km from Gaza, was in the marketplace with her son Mahmoud, when The New Arab asked her how service cuts would affect her.
"I am a mother of four children and my husband is jobless and ill.
"The UNRWA services, mainly food rations, are vital for us, in order to get by. Suppose that the six packs of flour we receive every three months will come to a halt?
"I believe, my family and I will go into a dire situation. Each pack of flour contains 50 kilograms. We call upon other [countries] to fill in the gap in UNRWA funding, before things get worse."
Other residents of the same neighbourhood, such as Mohammad Abdelkhaleq, a weaver from the Palestinian town of Asqalan, the present-day Ashkelon, believed that such measures are intended to make the Palestinians give up their right to self-determination and return to their former hometowns in what is now Israel.
"We will never renounce UNRWA, because UNRWA itself is the road back to Palestine. Our will and determination will remain strong and from this place in Gaza, every morning we look forward to returning back to Palestine.
"I believe that with our Palestinian unity, we can resist any vicious plans to undermine the Palestinian cause of justice," the 66-year-old told The New Arab, while bending over his weaving machine in the packed marketplace.
Jihad Lubbad, 42, whose family was also from Asqalan, echoed his determination.
"No one in the world could break the will of the Palestinian people," Lubbad told The New Arab. "Washington's move will not bring any deals that Palestinians find useless. Only those deals that are based on justice will be accepted by the Palestinian people."
An official response
Ahmad Abu Houly, head of the refugees' department of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, believes the decision will foster instability and unrest among Palestinian refugees.
"The US decision to cut funds, as well as the suggestion to direct responsibility for refugees to hosting authorities, instead of the UNRWA, are rejected vehemently," he told The New Arab.
"The UNRWA was established by a UN resolution and therefore, the UN is the body which decides its fate."
Abu Houly added that his team would do what it could to mobilise residents of refugee camps inside and outside the occupied territories to send a strong message of rejection over the US decision to cut UNRWA funds.
Many believe the cut is the latest of Washington's plans to redefine the Palestinian cause. In May, Washington under President Donald Trump, moved the US embassy from the Israeli city of Tel Aviv to occupied East Jerusalem, after Trump declared occupied Jerusalem to be the capital of the occupying Israeli state.
|I believe that the political dimension of such a US decision remains the most serious, as the decision is apparently meant to annul the Palestinian right to return|
Following its decision to cut off funds, the US Congress is reported to have considered a new bill claiming that Palestinian refugees number no more than 40,000.
International law considers the children and grandchildren of dispossessed Palestinian refugees to also be refugees, as they have not prevented from returning to their homes by an occupying military power.
The latest bill in the US Congress ignores approximately five million refugees - the children and the grandchildren of the 700,000 Palestinian refugees, displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948.
Washington has also shut down the Washington DC office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, pre-empting any PLO-led political mobility regarding US plans. The PLO had won US recognition in 1993, when the official Palestinian representatives signed the Oslo Declaration of Principles with Israel, under the auspices of the US administration.
What is needed?
"At the Palestinian level, Palestinians should reunite and have a unified political agenda that should counter Israel and the US," Akram Attallah, a prominent Gaza-based political analyst, told The New Arab.
"I believe that the political dimension of such a US decision remains the most serious, as the decision is apparently meant to annul the Palestinian right to return. The whole world is avoiding any friction with the US or Israel; therefore, the US is going ahead with its moves. With the current balance of power in the world, where the US is taking the lead, it will be hard to pressure the US towards any policy change."
Since President Donald Trump has come to office, Washington's role in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has become much less effective. In response to the US embassy move, the Palestinian Authority severed ties with the US administration.
Rami Almeghari is a Palestinian freelance journalist living and working in Gaza.
Follow him on Twitter: @writeralmeghari