While Trump's "deal of the century" is increasingly portrayed as yet to be unveiled, from the perspective of Palestinians this plan is already being implemented and its consequences hitting the most vulnerable. From the recognition of Jerusalem to the funding cuts to UNRWA and now further withholding of aid, Palestinians are being coerced into subjugation and faced with continued threats to their livelihoods and existence.
The funding cuts to UNRWA and USAID amount to over half a billion US$, and while other countries have stepped forward to fill most of UNRWA's shortfall for 2018, the threats and attacks on Palestinians remain real. Only a few days ago UNRWA announced its 2019 Syria Regional Crisis Emergency Appeal totalling US$ 276.9 million.
Throughout its existence, UNRWA has been essentially a quasi-state institution for a stateless people. Speaking with Mahmoud, from the Palestinian refugee camp of Al Buss, South Lebanon, when asked about the future of UNRWA serious concerns remain:
“They have new expenses this year and the question remains, will other countries fill the gap in the UNRWA’s funding, or will UNRWA be left to face an unknown fate? Which scares all Palestinians in Lebanon and especially those who wish to return, and to see the UNRWA continuing its work and assistance provided to Palestinian refugees.”
The tragic story of 3 years old Palestinian refugee Mohammad Wahbe provides us with a lens through which we can understand the current challenges UNRWA faces and the destabilising effects of Trump’s cuts on Palestinian communities in Lebanon. On the 17th of December 2018, Mohammad Wahbe died due to a serious brain condition that needed urgent treatment. It was reported that Mohammed died after at least four hospitals across Lebanon "allegedly refused to provide him with a bed in an intensive care unit."
The day after Mohammed's death a heartbreaking video emerged online showing the father's last kiss to the toddler. PRC interviewed Mohammed's father, Majdi, who is trying to make sense of the tragedy that has hit his family. According to Majdi UNRWA "did what was required of them but that is not enough. They should have covered more expenses for my son's treatment, and if they did it then this wouldn’t have happened." UNRWA provides health centres in the camps but if a refugee needs further treatment, the Agency has a hospitalisation policy of facilitating the refugee's admission to a Lebanese hospital and depending on the case it pays in full or in part for the hospital fees. UNRWA has denied that the issue was the lack of funds and stated that the hospitals did not have available space for the specialised treatment that Mohammed required. Majdi's distress at recounting the events that led to his son's death is palpable during the interview:
"I wish that no one goes through the same experience as me. Because it is very difficult, and losing a son is very difficult, I wish it on no one. You know, I am speaking to you because I did not want to say no, but I don’t have the energy to talk about it anymore. Because there is no result."
Palestinian refugees reacted with anger to this latest tragedy and organised a protest demanding a hospital be built in the Nahr Al-Bared camp. Majdi doubts that the protests will lead to any substantial change and is still haunted by the inability to save his son, "our child was fighting for his life in front of us and we couldn’t do anything for him." Majdi's concluding comments embody the sentiments of a grieving father but also aptly convey the abandonment Palestinians feel in the face of ongoing injustices: "All our life is suffering and tragedies. Everyone suffers here. Everyone knows what is happening, and there are no solutions."
Ali Hweidi heads a local Palestinian NGO dedicated to defending refugee rights in Lebanon and monitor UNRWA's activities, when discussing the case of Mohammed Wahbe, Ali was hopeful that what happened could be a turning point, "we hope that the death of the child ‘Wahbe’, the ‘Bouazizi’ for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, will bring change." Ali makes a clear reference to Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in 2011 was considered to be a catalyst for the Arab Uprisings. Mohammed's death should not be in vain, as Ali infers, and it should serve to mobilise the necessary change that Palestinians have been desperately waiting. Ali points out that the issue is not just funding, “We believe that the crisis of UNRWA is political, and not financial.”
For Kamel, 20 years old student from Maghazi camp in the besieged Gaza Strip, UNRWA is being targeted because “it is a proof that we, refugees, exists and our cause exists with us." Around 1 million Palestinian refugees reside in the Gaza Strip, blockaded and occupied by Israel, they rely extensively on humanitarian aid from UNRWA and other NGOs. UNRWA used to provide food assistance to 80,000 Gazans in the year 2000. After the blockade and policy of closure entrenched in 2007, today UNRWA provides food assistance to 1 million people in Gaza.
"One of the hardest challenges we suffer from is the lack of medicine in UNWRA facilities and hospitals in general," adds Kamel. In fact, as a result of Israel repression of the Great March of Return, over 24,000 Palestinians have been injured and Gaza's health system is on the verge of collapsing.
When discussing who refugees hold accountable for their plight, Kamel added, "The responsibility is shared also with Britain because it was what started this and brought the merciless occupation to our doorstep." Palestinians know well their history and rightly point to the destructive impact of Britain's occupation of Palestine which has facilitated Israeli settler colonialism.
Today, far from supporting Palestinian refugee's right of return Britain limits itself to donations to UNRWA. The Agency is indeed vital and provides much needed services but continued support limited to humanitarian aid will not bring about real change and improvement in the lives of Palestinians; it is a recipe for permanent exile with no solutions. Trump’s aid cuts are so extreme that they are worsening an already precarious situation, forcing Palestinians to scramble for humanitarian assistance just to survive.
Refugee returns are considered the most preferred international practice to solve crises. According to UNHCR’s latest annual data, "During 2017, nearly 5 million displaced people returned to their areas or countries of origin." There are 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, the question we should be asking is: why are they not allowed to return home?