Foreign Office questions
Tuesday September 4th 2018 2.30 pm
New Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt moved quickly to counter President Trump’s decision to stop US funding for Palestinian refugee camps by announcing a £7 million increase in UK funding.
“We do not agree with the American Administration’s decision on this issue,” he said at Foreign Office questions on Tuesday, promising to consult other countries on how to make up the gap in funding caused by Trump’s announcement.
International aid for Palestinian refugees is channelled through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which runs 59 refugees camps, 143 health centres and over 700 schools for 4.3 million refugees in five countries.
German foreign minister Heiko Maas announced last Friday that that Germany would increase its contributions to UNRWA, warning that “the loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction”.
On Thursday the White House confirmed that the $200 million cut in US aid will now include the $20 million – exempted so far – that goes to the specialist Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem serving the West Bank and Gaza.
The Augusta Victoria, Makassed and the St John’s Eye Hospital were among the last Palestinian national institutions based in Jerusalem and have a never-ending battle with Israel to obtain permits for their patients to pass through checkpoints to access the hospitals based inside Israel-annexed East Jerusalem.
Lobbying by Christian organisations in the US Congress has protected the hospitals from cuts so far, but the Administration now sees the withdrawal of US aid – including the hospitals – as a way of forcing the Palestinians to accept the Trump plan when it is finally unveiled.
In Gaza UNRWA distributes an absolute food ration to households that are living below $3.87 per person per day (£2.99) while a Social Safety Net ration is allocated to households subsisting below $1.47 per person per day (£1.13). In both cases, the food baskets contain quantities of wheat flour, rice, sunflower oil, sugar, dried milk, lentils and chickpeas.
In 2017 UNRWA distributed in-kind food assistance to over 993,045 beneficiaries in Gaza. In order to define Palestine refugees’ eligibility for emergency food assistance, UNRWA social workers from the Relief and Social Services Programme assessed refugee families’ poverty levels through 91,444 home visits.
One third of the 4.3 million registered Palestinian refugees continue to live in refugee camps, including 2.1 million in the West Bank and Gaza where economic restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation and the blockade of Gaza are the main cause of poverty.
The World Bank estimated in 2013 that Israeli expropriation of Palestinian resources and Israeli-imposed economic restrictions cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion a year. Without this burden the Palestinian economy would soon outgrow its need for overseas aid.
In the view of many economists international aid to Palestine, especially the EU but including the $200 million of USAid and the £90 million of UK aid, are essentially a subsidy to Israel allowing it to escape its responsibility under international law to shoulder the cost of its 51-year occupation.
Starving Palestinians into submission
Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab) In response to the cruel decision taken by the Trump Administration to cut US funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the German Government have pledged to increase their financial support for the agency. Will the Minister commit his Government to do the same, so that Palestinian refugees do not suffer as a result of the President’s decision?
The Minister for the Middle East (Alistair Burt) I am pleased to announce that today we have taken the decision to increase funding to UNRWA by a further £7 million. I spoke just a couple of hours ago to Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl to express our support for UNRWA. We understand the concerns of the United States, but we do not believe that the way it has gone about this is correct. We will continue to support the most vulnerable people, because that also forms a vital part of a just solution to the issues between the Palestinians and Israel.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab) I welcome what the Minister has just said about new funding for UNRWA. Labour has been saying for months that proposed cuts from Donald Trump would damage Palestinian schooling and education and harm the peace process. Will the Foreign Office also now take the lead in organising an international emergency conference, so that others may also pledge more support?
Alistair Burt I am grateful for her support, and it is a common view in the House. We have increased funding more than once during this year, and more than £40 million extra has been brought forward to support UNRWA. I spoke to the commissioner-general about education in particular. He has the funds to open the schools at present and keep them going, but this will depend on further funding decisions in the future. I hope that we will be able to take part in mutual discussions at the UN General Assembly with other states that are affected. This is not just about the West Bank and Gaza; it is also about Jordan and Lebanon. It is about places where children are getting an education. We are talking about an education that is gender neutral in a way in which other parts of the education system in the region are not. The question is: if UNRWA does not provide the education, who might? That is why it is so important to keep this going.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab) May I put it to [the Foreign Secretary] that one of the most disreputable aspects of President Trump’s decision to end United States funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency is the fact that he dressed it up as part of a grand negotiating strategy towards what he calls the deal of the century, when in reality that decision is hitting schools and hospitals and the food aid for hundreds of thousands of people in abject poverty?
I applaud the increase in funding for UNRWA, but may I press the Secretary of State a bit more about what action the UK Government and their partners will take to ensure that the vital lifeline that UNRWA provides to vulnerable people around the world will not be lost?
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Jeremy Hunt)
We do not agree with the American Administration’s decision on this issue. Today’s funding announcement is part of our response, but I reassure him that we will talk to other donors as well, to see whether we can make up the gap in funding to UNRWA that has been caused by that decision.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab) The World Health Organisation reports that 10 Palestinian people, including a pregnant woman and her two children, were killed and more than 400 were injured by Israeli forces in one week in August. Instead of deploying even more chatter, why will the international community not actually act and protect some of the most vulnerable people on earth?
Alistair Burt The experiences in Gaza and the crisis we have seen over the summer have different roots and causes. It is essential that all those who are contributing in any way to the violence in relation to the process desist and find a way through to the peace opportunities that are there. We deeply regret the loss of life, and it is essential that all sides respond to that. Also, the violence that comes from Gaza towards Israel is making negotiations very difficult.