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'UNRWA or nothing': Palestinians in Lebanon brace for the worst

Palestinians in Lebanon have already begun to feel the consequences of funding cuts in schools and hospitals as a result of the United States halting contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
Palestinian students are seen at UNRWA school in Beirut, Lebanon September 3, 2018. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir - RC1FB53825F0

BEIRUT — In remarks to reporters on Sept. 3, Lebanon’s caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil denounced the US decision to halt all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), stating that keeping the agency funded was a “matter of life or death.” For the majority of Palestinians in Lebanon, who have long relied on UNRWA’s delivery of essential services, Bassil’s claim is not much of an exaggeration.

“Historically, we have funding problems,” Fadi el-Tayyar, UNRWA’s public information officer in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor. “This is huge. This is one of the unprecedented crises.”

The United States' financial contribution amounted to more than $380 million annually, accounting for somewhere between a quarter and a third of UNRWA's funding, according to Chris Gunness, the agency's chief spokesperson. In 2017, the US contribution far outnumbered that from any other country.

According to a wide-ranging 2015 study conducted by the American University of Beirut (AUB) and UNRWA, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live in some of the worst socioeconomic conditions of any Palestinian population in the Middle East outside Gaza. In some cases, they are wholly dependent on UNRWA. As a result, it is likely that Palestinians in Lebanon will be especially hard-hit by the US action, degrading their access to life-saving health care, basic education and vital employment opportunities that many already see as inadequate.

Sahar Dabdoub, principal of the UNRWA-run Ramallah Elementary Coed School in the Shatila refugee camp, in southern Beirut, said fears of school closures resulting from the funding cut are very real for her and for the rest of the local community.

“All of the people, from me down — deputy principals, teachers, students, parents — everyone is afraid for the future,” Dabdoub told Al-Monitor.

Due to a variety of political, economic, and geographic factors, according to UNRWA and AUB, most Palestinian children are forced to rely exclusively on UNRWA schools, which often tend to be overcrowded. Dabdoub said that six years ago, the Ramallah School had only 333 students. That number has since more than doubled, to 820, due to Palestinians previously living in Syria having fled to the refugee camps in Lebanon to escape the civil war next door.

In addition to dealing with overcrowding, UNRWA has also had problems maintaining generators in recent months, resulting in electricity shortages in schools, according to Mohammad Shouli, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Association for Human Rights (Witness).

Because Lebanon legally bars Palestinians from a host of professions, UNRWA also serves as a major employer of refugees. Dabdoub said that the agency’s schools are a lifeline for her and other educators, who would not be able to work elsewhere if they were laid off.

Fear of what lies ahead has become routine at UNRWA’s medical clinics as well, which receive the second largest portion of the agency’s budget, behind education facilities. According to the AUB-UNRWA study, some 99% of Palestinians in Lebanon have no health insurance outside of UNRWA, and many would not be able to afford even basic medication if not for the agency.

“[People] have no resources for health services, to buy medication, for example, [or] to be hospitalized,” said Nasr Hamad, senior medical officer at UNRWA’s Central Lebanon Area Polyclinic in Beirut. “So, there is a crisis, and we are living it.”

Amid the fears, agency officials say they are confident they will be able to close the historic funding gap. Noting the Arab League summit held Sept. 11, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told Bloomberg on Sept. 18, “Commitments were made by Arab and non-Arab states to fill the gaps that have been created by the withdrawal of American support.”

Tayyar said he remains confident about the situation. “Our plan is to continue our services as they are, uninterrupted. This is as per our mandate,” he said. “We have not cut any salaries, [and] services are continuing also.”

Nearly $200 million still needs to be raised according to Gunness, and despite Tayyar’s optimism, reductions in services have already begun. Hamad said that vacancies among his staff have remained unfilled, and only patients with life-threatening illnesses are now being hospitalized. One patient, Amina Hindi, told Al-Monitor that due to a lack of funds, UNRWA had to close an endocrinology ward where she was being treated.

Past funding gaps had also resulted in major service cuts. In 2015 UNRWA was forced to halt cash assistance for housing to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon coming from Syria, as the agency's budget was unable to meet the needs of the new arrivals. Although previous shortfalls have had a significant impact on the refugees in Lebanon, Shouli said that the unprecedented size of the current gap portends a worse situation on the ground compared to those previously.

“In the past, the cuts affected refugees negatively on relief and other things,” he told Al-Monitor. “In the previous years, the cut [was] small — $50 million, $90 million. If the cut in the budget holds, I think UNRWA will face difficulties in providing services to the refugees.”

In August, Foreign Policy magazine reported that one of the Donald Trump administration’s goals in halting funding to UNRWA was to incentivize Arab countries into shouldering more of the financial burden of supporting the Palestinian refugees. In Lebanon — which is not only deep in debt, but also has a history of demographic stresses due to the large number of Palestinians living there — giving Palestinians access to the same services as Lebanese citizens is widely viewed as a fantasy. For the time being, as Dabdoub told Al-Monitor, it is either “UNRWA or nothing.”

As services dwindle further, the Palestinian community in Lebanon will inevitably grow increasingly desperate. Protests against the cuts have already begun, as on Sept. 11 at the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, in Sidon, and tensions will likely continue to increase until a resolution to the crisis is reached.

UNRWA may well secure emergency funding sources for the short term to cover the deficit created by the United States, but finding a long-term solution will be much more difficult. In the interim, Palestinians in Lebanon will likely be forced to bear the brunt of the consequences from this new status quo.

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