BEIRUT: If the recent massive U.S. cuts to UNRWA succeed in bringing about the closure of the agency, officials warn that the short-term impact on Lebanon could be disastrous, partly because there is no desire for the state to take on the agency’s responsibilities – an apparent goal of the Trump administration.
UNRWA is under unprecedented financial pressure because of the U.S. decision to withdraw all its funding. If the organization is forced to fold, Palestinians in the country would be affected like nowhere else. Unlike in other host countries, which provide a level of public support, “Palestinian refugees [in Lebanon] count mainly on UNRWA for basic urban and humanitarian services,” said Abdelnasser al-Ayi, project manager at the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee.
“That, combined with the security [situation] and the presence of arms inside the camps, might ignite instability in the country that goes beyond the Palestinian camps.” Apart from the Nahr al-Bared camp, which is now under government control following a war in 2007 that displaced nearly 30,000 Palestinians, weapons are held freely around Lebanon’s camps.
Despite opening the doors of schools across its areas of operation Monday, UNRWA may be forced to close them again unless alternative sources of funding can be found – it is currently operating under a $217 million budget deficit. “As long as we have money and financial support from other countries, we will continue with our services,” Claudio Cordone, director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon, told The Daily Star earlier this week.
There is some cause for hope for the embattled agency: The EU, Ireland, Jordan, Germany and most recently the U.K. have all pledged additional support. While the Trump administration can easily turn this into a domestic policy victory for the U.S. taxpayer, it also shows that the administration does not have the support of its international allies. “The dynamic of the U.S. isolating itself and discrediting itself is true not only on these issues but on its broader foreign policy – or lack thereof,” said Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Nevertheless, the recent U.S. cuts seem to suggest that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser in charge of the Middle East peace plan, is following through on some major policy points first suggested in an article run in Foreign Policy magazine last month.
“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” Kushner wrote, adding, “Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are ... sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there,” according to emails directed to senior officials including Trump’s Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt seen by the magazine.
The willingness to upset the status quo was most clearly demonstrated by the decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem, while the “sincere effort” to disrupt UNRWA is evidently in full swing.
The commitment of the administration to applying pressure on UNRWA suggests Kushner’s team may try to follow through on a related issue. According to the FP article, when Kushner visited Jordan in June, he pressed the kingdom to remove the refugee status of its more than 2 million Palestinians so that UNRWA would no longer have a mandate to work there.
“[Kushner said] the resettlement has to take place in the host countries and these governments can do the job that UNRWA was doing,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, is quoted as saying.
This highlights a marked gap in the Kushner team’s ambitions and what host countries are willing to concede. On the short-term issue of the Lebanese government providing services to Palestinian refugees, Ayi said, “There is no willingness at all to pick up this file from UNRWA or to put it even to discussion with any of the donor countries.”
As for the resettlement of refugees inside Lebanon, “We will fight this to our last breath because for us it’s a survival issue,” Nicolas Sehnaoui, vice president of the Free Patriotic Movement, the country’s largest Christian party, told The Daily Star.
According to Katulis, the U.S. administration hopes to be able to “make some sort of disruptive unilateral move that would produce results. I don’t see that as likely. ... There is no coherent plan in Jordan, Lebanon or any country that hosts Palestinian refugees to make this major shift.”
“On the Israeli-Palestinian front ... the Kushner-Greenblatt team is poised to be the least successful Middle East team that we’ve ever seen,” he added.