Is UN Aid Voluntary Charity or a Right?

The Guardian has published an article titled “‘It’s a death sentence’: Palestinians in Jerusalem brace for Trump aid cuts“. The implication is, of course, that either Trump wants Palestinians to die or is too stupid to see that his actions will kill them.

shu'fatThe suffocatingly dense district of Shuafat is a Palestinian refugee camp that has grown into a maze of illegally built high-rises, but the Palestinian Authority has no power here. Israel considers Shuafat under its jurisdiction – its residents pay tax – yet people say the only state presence they feel is when soldiers come in.

The camp was built by Jordan in 1964. Then, in 1967, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, triggering the Six-Day War. Jordan attacked Israel, and in retaliation, Israel occupied and annexed East Jerusalem, including the Shu’fat camp. Some health services are provided by Israeli clinics in the camp. Israeli Police rarely enter due to security concerns. The following quote from the Jerusalem Post hints at why:

Shu’fat was known during the violence in Jerusalem in 2014-2015 as a place where many perpetrators come from, among them Ibrahim al-Akari, 47, a Hamas operative who drove his car into two groups of Israelis standing at the Shimon Hatzadik light rail stop on November 5, 2014. Akari killed Border Police officer Jidan Assad in the attack, and wounded 13 others.

The same article gives an account of the crime and violence in the camp, making it clear why it is a dangerous place for Israeli police.

So for many residents of Shuafat, the closest thing to a government is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. The body was set up to help Palestinians uprooted in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war – at the time considered a temporary crisis. In the absence of peace, UNRWA has continued operations for seven decades, running schools, clinics, sanitation efforts and shelters.

While the UN relief workers are doubtless helping the people of Shu’fat, they are hardly a government. It’s hard for Israel to govern when the majority of the camp’s occupants are residents who do not acknowledge Israeli authority. During the Second Intifada in the year 2000, Israel built a border wall to defend against terror attacks, and Shu’fat lies just outside the wall.

But the aid agency is in crisis after Washington targeted its funding. For the residents on the crowded streets of Shuafat, already notorious as the drug and crime centre of Jerusalem, an end to UNRWA would mean the collapse of nearly all their infrastructure. Donald Trump says he is using humanitarian aid to Shuafat and more than 5 million Palestinians across the Middle East as leverage to force their leaders into signing up to his yet-to-be-detailed peace initiative.

I’d say this accurately describes the situation. The question is, will this tactic lead to progress on peace talks.

Cutbacks have already started. Last year, the US was the single largest donor to UNRWA, paying $355m, close to half its operating budget. This year, it has contributed $60m.

It’s understandable that the Americans would want to contribute less to the organization. Their contribution is a voluntary donation. Why should they have to contribute half of the UNRWA’s budget?

A week ago, the girls’ school run by UNRWA was raided by thieves who stole computers. “There are hardly any janitors, no guards,” said Khalid al-Sheikh. “If it was bad before, imagine the situation after. Trump’s decision: it’s a death sentence to the children of the camp. If you remove these services, people have nothing left but their dignity.” He warned that the result would be violence.

I understand the urge to violence, but this is exactly why so few Israelis are going into Shu’fat.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNWRA, also warns of the danger of cuts. “Is it in American and Israel security interests to have the collapse of a functioning service provider in Jerusalem?” he asked.

If it brings the Palestinians to the table, perhaps they’d answer yes.

A joint Palestinian-Israeli poll found support for militancy among Palestinians jumped 17% immediately after the US president said he would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The declaration broke international consensus that the city’s status would be negotiated by the two sides. Trump now says that issue is off the table.

This is bullshit. The Jerusalem Embassy Act was passed by congress in 1995. Every president since (Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump) has publicly supported it. On June 5, 2017, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution commemorating the 50th anniversary of reunification of Jerusalem by 90-0. The resolution reaffirmed the Jerusalem Embassy Act and called upon the President and all United States officials to abide by its provisions.

UNRWA’s commissioner-general has been travelling around the world meeting governments and individuals in an attempt to cover the shortfall. A public campaign, named “dignity is priceless”, has launched online. For the moment, Chris Gunness says UNRWA is determined not to make any cuts: “We are robustly determined to maintain services because we are talking about some of the most disadvantaged people in the region.”

Good. I hope that they find people willing to contribute to their mission. If the Israelis and the Palestinians do come to the table, Shu’fat has a chance of becoming part of Palestine. Until that happens, I don’t see things getting much better for the people there, even if the UNRWA is able to regain full funding.


About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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