The Trump administration’s decision to withhold funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, abandons millions of vulnerable refugees, jeopardizes Israel’s security and undermines the credibility and interests of the United States in the Middle East.
Since 1949, UNRWA has provided health care, education, stable housing and other vital services to Palestinians displaced by conflict who live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories. While the United Nations, the European Union and other governmental and private-sector partners also fund UNRWA, the United States has historically been the largest single contributor.
This support helps meet the humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians and enhances U.S. and Israeli security by reducing radicalization and promoting regional stability. It also serves as an important foundation for resolving the long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Now, however, UNRWA has become the latest target in President Donald Trump’s attempt to punish Palestinian leadership for opposing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel outside the framework of final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
According to UNRWA, the Trump administration has withheld nearly $300 million, an 83 percent cut from last year — despite the fact that none of this assistance would have gone to the Palestinian Authority.
Regardless of one’s thoughts on the president’s Jerusalem announcement, such a drastic cut to Palestinian assistance, based on political retribution rather than sound foreign policy, is both callous and counterproductive.
It would put in peril the lives of millions of Palestinian refugees, many of whom already live in dire circumstances and rely on UNRWA for housing, education, health care and food. And it would provoke greater instability throughout the region, undermining Israel’s security and future prospects for peace.
Insult to injury
Senior Israeli security officials have made it very clear: UNRWA’s work is vital to Israel’s security and well-being.
“By weakening UNRWA and, consequentially, the Palestinian population even further, without a real administrative alternative, I believe that Palestinians will be even more susceptible to extremism and violence,” retired Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a former Israel Defense Forces spokesperson, wrote in response to the president’s decision. “This will not contribute to security or stability in the region.”
Other Israeli officials have articulated concerns that cutting assistance to UNRWA could fuel greater frustration, despair and unrest, potentially sparking an uprising against the Israeli army along Gaza’s border with Israel.
The prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace and U.S. credibility as an arbiter in the process have already been tarnished by the Trump administration’s policies and missteps. Now, slashing UNRWA funding on top of threats to cut bilateral assistance to the Palestinians — assistance that is critical to increasing cooperation between Palestinian security forces and the Israeli military — could be catastrophic, further undermining the investments the United States has made for over 60 years to help foster the conditions for peace.
As strong supporters of a thriving Jewish democratic State of Israel and as advocates for a just and stable future for the Palestinian people, more than 100 of our congressional colleagues joined us in writing a letter to the president urging the restoration of U.S. assistance to UNRWA and the continuation of bilateral assistance to the Palestinians.
It is not too late for the Trump administration to change course. Our commitment to peace and prosperity since the conclusion of World War II is unparalleled, and that includes providing humanitarian support to vulnerable populations around the globe. Our nation’s leaders have understood that empowering international organizations, local governments and nonprofits to provide education, health care, social services and economic assistance not only saves lives, but represents an investment in a better and more stable world. The president should maintain this course by restoring our contribution to UNRWA.
Shortsighted political vengeance is unlikely to compel acquiescence from the Palestinians or anyone else. Meanwhile, it jeopardizes the well-being of millions of Palestinian refugees, including hundreds of thousands of children. We cannot allow bruised egos or threatening tweets to endanger our nation’s interests and the security of our allies. The stakes are far too high.