No account can truly capture the increasing suffering those cuts brought on. In the Gaza Strip, for instance – one of the most densely populated places in the world – some 1.4 million out of 2 million people are refugees, and 80 percent of them depend on humanitarian assistance for their sustenance and livelihood. The cuts have reduced key services, from healthcare to education, accelerating Gaza’s descent into a terrifying dystopia.
Though the 2018 U.S. decision caused an “historical shortfall” in UNRWA’s budget, it did not signal a fundamental shift in U.S. policy. Rather, it represented an upsurge in an ongoing US-Israeli strategy to weaken and ultimately dismantle the agency. Instead of serving as a means to integrate refugees, as was originally intended by Western powers, over the decades UNRWA emerged as a symbol of the Palestinian refugee predicament and a substitute welfare state-in-exile. This is why the agency’s wings are being clipped and its programs targeted.
Over time, and particularly since the Oslo Accords, Israel and the U.S. have aimed to destroy UNRWA’s cultural ethos as it pertains to a collective sense of Palestinian national belonging. They have also worked to drive a wedge between the refugees and the agency, expand monitoring mechanisms to scrutinize and control the agency’s programs as well as its staff, and diminish its standing regionally and internationally.
For years, Israeli lobby groups have pushed Western states to suspend their funding to UNRWA, accusing the agency of anti-Semitism, corruption, and having links to terrorism. Donor states such as Canada have responded by conditioning funding on “reform” programs and stricter monitoring procedures. UNRWA usually complies with such demands to secure funding.
Also in response to these pressures, UNRWA has increasingly highlighted concepts such as neutrality, human rights, human development, protection, and gender to emphasize individual and social rights while prohibiting expressions of what it defines as “political.” Former employees of the agency have relayed to this author that warnings and layoffs have occurred in recent years due to employees not expressing themselves “neutrally.” Staff have also been asked to remove pre-1948 Palestinian maps from textbooks and UNRWA facilities, and have experienced monitoring over programs to ensure they contain no criticism of Israel or Zionism.