BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Gazing through the window of his family’s modest falafel shop, Samer Sa’ad is deeply worried about his children’s future in the overcrowded Dheisheh refugee camp here.
Sa’ad is one of 15,000 Palestinians trying to eke out a living in this 0.2-square-mile patch of land. Now, the Trump administration has decided to zero out funding for one of their only lifelines: a United Nation’s program that operates schools, health clinics, and other basic assistance programs for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
“Education, especially here in the camp, is the key to a better future. The schools need funding,” said Sa’ad, the father of three young children. Nearby, dozens of children dodged traffic on the camp’s narrow main road as they made their way home from an elementary school funded by that program, called the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency, known as UNRWA.
Sa’ad is also worried the Trump administration will try to dramatically slash the number of Palestinians classified as refugees. Like many Palestinians, Sa’ad hopes to return to the home his family left behind in what is now Israel. But the prospect for repatriation — what Palestinians call the “right of return” – is limited to UNRWA-certified refugees.
“I dream of freedom, of an end to the Israeli occupation, but I’m afraid I will never be able to reclaim our home and our land,” Sa’ad told USA TODAY.
In announcing its decision Friday to nix funding, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. could no longer “shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs.” America has historically been the program’s largest donor, providing about $350 million of the agency’s $1 billion-plus annual budget in recent years.
But Nauert also criticized UNRWA’s mandate to grant refugee status to the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of refugees displaced from Israel during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, which she said creates an “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”
UNRWA was established in 1949, after 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The agency was supposed to be temporary – operating only until a peace agreement settled the status of those refugees.
Nearly 70 years later, UNRWA serves 5.4 million Palestinian refugees. Meanwhile, prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal appear to be bleaker than ever. And the Palestinians’ right of return remains one of the biggest obstacles to a resolution – a key demand of the Palestinians and a nonstarter for Israel.
Israeli leaders say a large influx of Palestinians would turn Israel into a Palestinian country, negating the purpose of creating a Jewish state. In a preemptive move, the Israeli government recently passed a “Nation State law” that codifies Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Sunday praised the U.S. funding freeze for UNRWA, calling it a “refugee perpetuation agency.”
UNRWA’s leaders say its mandate dictates how, and how, many refugees are eligible for that designation. And it’s only morally right, they argue, that “family unity” is taken into account in trying to help those displaced by conflict, whether in the West Bank or elsewhere across the globe.
“Enshrined in the principle of humanity and the international law norm of family unity is the commitment to continue serving communities affected by war until a political solution has been found,” Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA’s commissioner general wrote in a Sept. 1 open letter responding to the Trump administration funding decision.
UNRWA Spokesman Chris Gunness said the growing Palestinian refugee population was not a problem created by the U.N. agency.
“The reason why the numbers go up is because the people who are responsible for the peace process – broadly speaking the international community – have failed to bring about the resolution of refugee status of these people,” he said. “It’s the conflict that perpetuates UNRWA, not UNRWA that perpetuates the conflict.”
Gunness said the Trump administration’s decision has rippled through the refugee camps.
“The sense of shock and foreboding is palpable,” he said. While UNRWA was able to open schools on time last week, Gunness said, the agency only has enough money to keep them running through the end of September. Several other countries, from Germany to Jordan, are scrambling to see if they can fill the funding gap.
If they can’t, “the consequences for the refugees we serve are catastrophic,” Gunness said. “We will have to stop educating 526,000 children,” along with cuts to health care and other services, he said.
Dave Harden, who worked extensively in the West Bank and Gaza as a top U.S. Agency for International Development official in the Obama administration, said Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son in law and his senior adviser, was a key force behind the decision to nix funding for UNRWA.
He said Kushner and others are right to argue the U.N. agency needs to be revamped.
“Make no mistake, this assistance is life-saving to the most vulnerable,” Harden wrote in a recent op-ed. “But after 70 years, the structure and incentives have ossified to create welfare dependency. Most Palestinians would prefer the dignity of a state, a job, and the potential of a real future than food basket deliveries, generation after generation.”
But, Harden said, the decision to zap funding altogether will have terrible consequences – sowing further instability in the region and undermining U.S. influence just as Kushner prepares to unveil Trump’s much anticipated peace proposal.
“We will create a vacuum and we will lose influence,” Harden said. If other donors fill the budget gap, the U.S. will become “irrelevant,” he added, “or it could empower Hamas and Hezbollah.” Both are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department, and both have vowed to destroy Israel.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, called UNRWA a “political organization, not a humanitarian one.”
“Repatriation is an option, not a guaranteed right, and both sides have to agree,” Steinberg said. “Yet this is the only narrative UNRWA presents. All other refugees, who are cared for by UNHCR (the U.N.’s broader refugee agency), lose their refugee status when they become permanent residents or citizens of another country. Not so the Palestinians.”
Steinberg said that supporters of the Palestinian right of return “forget that the United Nations created two states: a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews accepted it and absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees forced out of Arab countries. The Arabs rejected it, declared war, and became refugees.”
In the Dheisheh refugee camp, Sa’ad was not the only Palestinian trying to keep their dream of returning home alive, despite the latest news.
Yazan Alsaqa, 18, a university student who works in a sandwich shop in Dhaisheh, said he doesn’t care whether the U.S. considers him a refugee. Walking from behind the sandwich shop counter, where he was putting falafel and chumous into a pita pocket, Alsaqa produced a piece of paper declaring his refugee status.
“My grandfather was a refugee, my parents are refugees, I’m a refugee. No one can say otherwise.”
Hanan Abu Ajemiya, a 48-year-old grocery store owner, was less sanguine.
“I’m worried,” she said. “I want the right of return to my ancestral home in Palestine. I don’t believe I’ll ever be given the chance to return, but I can’t give up hope.”