How Humanitarian Aid Became Politicized

An interview with Peter Mulrean, of the United Nations agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, about what cutting U.S. aid to the program will mean for the world.
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Palestinian schoolboys walk past sacks of flour outside an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in December of 2018.

Palestinian schoolboys walk past sacks of flour outside an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in December of 2018. 

In January of 2018, President Donald Trump tweeted, "...we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect." Later that month, the Trump administration announced that it would cut over $65 million in aid—not to the Palestinian Authority, but to Palestinian refugees.

The $65 million came out of the budget of the United Nations agency in charge of providing critical aid—schools, hospitals, and food—for the world's 5.4 million Palestinian refugees, who represent 20 percent of the global refugee population.

Less than a year after the initial funding cut, the Trump administration announced in August of 2018 that it would cut $300 million more in aid to the refugees, the entirety of the United State's commitment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Since 1949, UNRWA has cared for the Palestinian families forced to flee their ancestral homes during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. First created to care for people who had fled the original violence, UNRWA now provides basic services to the original refugees, their children, and their grandchildren.

When the second cut was announced, the Department of State accused UNRWA of being an "irredeemably flawed" organization. But just a month prior, the department had signed an agreement saying the U.S. was "committed to continuing its partnership with UNRWA."

"A lot of the statements made around that time indicated that it was a political decision to put pressure on the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table," says Peter Mulrean, the director of UNRWA's New York office. "But UNRWA is a humanitarian agency. We don't have any leverage over what the Palestinian leadership does. And we don't don't have an opinion on what a political situation should look like."

The U.S. has chosen to "politicize humanitarian assistance," he added.

After nearly 30 years of service in the Department of State, Mulrean joined UNRWA in 2017, and has tried to keep the agency functioning during a political climate in which the U.S. has demonstrated unprecedented hostility toward Palestinians. Mulrean's tenure as director of the agency's New York office has coincided with the biggest changes in U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine in a generation, as the Trump administration aligns with the right-wing Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The shift culminated with the Trump administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December of 2017, a month before UNRWA was first defunded. Netanyahu and other conservative Israeli politicians have lambasted UNRWA, arguing that its continued existence perpetuates the idea that Palestinian refugees and their ancestors have a right to return to lands that Israel now claims.

Earlier this month, I met with Mulrean in Manhattan to discuss the greatest challenges facing Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, and the diplomatic world in general.

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With the Trump administration's shift on Palestinian relations, and with their cutting of funding for your agency, what are the key challenges UNRWA faces right now?

I would say UNRWA faces three challenges right now, and the second and third one are the topical ones that you're talking about. But I always start with the first one, which is the situation of the refugees themselves on the ground, because a lot of what you read about going on is very much about the politics and the finances—and not the fact that we're talking about millions of people on the ground who are in many cases living in extremely difficult circumstances that are not getting better.

Just so you can get a sense of the size and the scope of what we're dealing with: We're talking about 5.4 million people, living in five different areas [including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza].

Why do you think the United States has become so hostile to UNRWA in recent years?

We frankly have to conclude that it was a political decision. UNRWA is a humanitarian agency. This was a politicization of humanitarian assistance.

One thing I think we can say very clearly about the United States [in the past]: Whatever its political positions were over the decades of the Israel–Palestine conflict, it has always kept a firewall between the policy it was pursuing and the humanitarian assistance. It was alway the single largest assistance provider to UNRWA.

And [for 70 years] it never changed, it was always based on humanitarian principles. And to see the U.S., which was such a great partner, walk away—which is its right, as it's the sovereign right of any country to do what it wants with its money—was saddening. But what was deeply troubling was to do it in a way that politicized their approach to humanitarian assistance.

What are the greatest challenges facing the refugees themselves?

Depending on what Palestinian refugees you're talking about, we're facing a different set of challenges in terms of their living conditions and their ability to access public services. But in particular these days—in addition to being a population that has been waiting for some sort of resolution for 70 years—you have, in several places, people who are seeing the situation get worse. Obviously the Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria are as bad-off as most of the other people in Syria. They used to be reasonably well able to work, and be part of the economy, have a more or less normal life—now, they're 100 percent dependent on us [UNRWA]. And for many of them, we can't lose sight that this is their second or third displacement over generations.

In a place like Gaza, where people have been living under extraordinary conditions—nearly 12 years of blockade; three conflicts, maybe four; up to 60 percent unemployment—the situation tests the resilience and patience of people who have very little to hope for. We have seen, for example, in recent years, what the head of our health services calls a "pyshco-social epidemic": medical professionals see the medical manifestations of the tensions and the pressures that this population has lived under for the last 30 years.

Something like 95 percent of the kids who go through our schools have never set foot out of the Gaza Strip. This is the worst sort or recipe you want for finding a solution: A young generation of kids, Palestinians and Israelis, who don't know each other. They have had virtually no interaction with each other. But what they do know is heightened rhetoric on both sides that sort of demonizes the other.

Could you talk about the schools UNRWA operates, and how they navigate the complicated political context of the refugees?

Education is one of the major things we do. We have over 530,000 students in over 700 schools. If UNRWA were in the U.S., we would be right behind Los Angeles on the list of largest school systems in the country.

We have curriculum based on critical thinking and U.N. standards. We teach human rights and tolerance and, if our schools close, the immediate negative impact is you are depriving children—280,000 children in Gaza alone—of an education. And the alternative is that they may get the education from someone else who doesn't teach human rights and tolerance. And I don't think that's what anyone wants, the United States, Israel, or any of the countries in the region.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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