A leading resident of a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus put it very succinctly. There was a conspiracy, he said, to run down the UN agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees.
President Trump has already announced he is ending the $365 million US contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency and USAID budget of $200 million for Palestine.
Middle East minister Alistair Burt responded with a £7 million increase in the UK contribution, but, as Labour’s shadow Middle East minister Fabian Hamilton pointed out, that would still leave UNRWA with a shortfall of $380 million this year. It was “a drop in the ocean”.
The chairman of the residents’ committee of the Al Askar camp, Husni Odeh, told a group from Sheffield last week that the UN agency was already being forced to run down vital services for the most marginalised refugees suffering from high levels of poverty and unemployment.
Class sizes in United Nations schools have been increased to 50 or even 55. UN health centres often have just one doctor to see 50-60 patients – and they have no medicines to give them.
When inevitably some refugees see no point in going to a doctor that has no medicine, or move their children out of overcrowded UN schools, they claim the Palestinians “don’t want our services” in order to justify still further cuts in UNRWA’s budget.
“The UN are closing health centres and they are shrinking their services gradually so that people don’t stop them,” he said.
President Trump has also floated the idea of downgrading Palestinian refugees so that the next generation will no longer have refugee status. But there is an essential difference between Palestinian refugees and refuges from natural disasters or wars.
The latter will eventually return to an empty home or at least a plot of land where they can rebuild their lives. But Palestinian refugees have no home to go to. Even in their own country they are refugees. Their villages have been demolished. Their homes are occupied by strangers.
The aid that western countries provide for Palestinian refugees is essentially conscience money to atone for the fact that they are not prepared to pressure the Israeli government into the action they know is needed.
UNRWA provides assistance for 5.15 million refugees, education for 515,000 children, health centres for 3.1 million patients and basic food rations for 255,000 refugees living in extreme poverty.
President Trump is openly trying to starve Palestinians to the negotiating table to accept a deal has not yet been published, but which will undoubtedly involve a complete humiliation and the loss of yet more land in addition to the 78% of historic Palestine they have already given up their claim to.
Trump boasted that: “I stopped massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians. I’d say, you’ll get money, but we’re not paying you until we make a deal. If we don’t make a deal, we’re not paying.”
Labour has called for an international emergency conference so that other countries can pledge support to close the funding gap caused by the withdrawal of the US contribution. They will have a choice between increased aid to avert a humanitarian crisis – or action to put effective international pressure on Israel to lift the blockade and the occupation.