UNRWA funding cuts are immoral 

On Jan. 26, the Biden administration announced that it would stop funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), responding to demands from Israel after learning that 12 UNRWA employees had supported the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7. 

Did the 12 UNRWA employees participate in the attack on Israel? Probably so. Should they be fired, arrested, tried and punished? Absolutely. Should UNRWA strengthen its procedures to vet employees and monitor their activities? Yes, and UNRWA has pledged to do so. Should the 30,000 UNRWA employees and the 5.9 million Palestinian refugees they feed and educate be punished for the acts of those 12? It’s hard to imagine a more disproportionate and immoral response.

UNRWA operates 58 refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA schools educate 500,000 students, more than the cities of Chicago, Boston and Atlanta combined. If 12 teachers in those cities were accused of violent attacks, would we close the schools? UNRWA operates 140 health clinics serving more than 1.9 million patients, more than the New York City public health system, our nation’s largest. Should we close the New York health care system if we learn that 12 of its 40,000 staff have committed violent crimes? 

Now, despite evidence that even a pause in UNRWA funding could cause a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, House Republicans have introduced a bill that would permanently ban U.S. support for UNRWA. Not all Western nations are bowing to Israeli pressure. Spain, Ireland and Norway have vowed to continue funding UNRWA. Norway’s foreign minister called UNRWA a “vital lifeline for 1.5 million refugees in Gaza” and urged other countries “to distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for.”

On the same day that Israel pressed the Biden administration to terminate funding for UNRWA, Israeli members of the Knesset and government ministers participated in a conference calling for the resettlement of Palestinians and their expulsion from Gaza. The crippling of UNRWA seems to be more than a coincidence. The Netanyahu government seems intent on removing the last remaining lifeline for Palestinians in Gaza. Is this really a regime that deserves our support?

Beyond considerations of humanitarian justice, what will termination of UNRWA funding do to our relations in the region beyond Israel? Jordan, our most stable and loyal Arab ally, hosts 10 UNRWA camps and over 2 million Palestinian refugees. The U.S. stations 3,000 U.S. troops in the country and we rely on Jordan’s support for our operations in Iraq and Syria. Although Palestinians have been welcomed in Jordan for 75 years since Israel drove many from their homes in 1948, the political balance with native Jordanians is often fraught. Cutting support for UNRWA could destabilize a critical ally and is sure to fuel more discord in an already stressed region.  

Scott Brown is a former Chair of the Board of Directors of Mercy Corps which provides humanitarian and economic development assistance to refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza.

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