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In Lebanon's Palestinian Camps, US Cuts Stoke Fear


Palestinians protest outside UNRWA headquarters in Beirut in 2016. The protests were prompted by a change in UNRWA medical support, widely interpreted as a cut. (J. Owens/VOA)

As he awaited medical assistance made possible by foreign donors, Ahmad Said spoke darkly about the sudden cut in U.S. aid to the U.N. agency upon which he depends.

"Things are bad, things are very bad," the 84-year-old muttered.

In Beirut, Said waited his turn to be seen by a doctor for leg pains at a clinic run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the organization that assists Palestinians refugees like him and one now thrust into deep uncertainty.

In a waiting room in a UNRWA clinic in southern Beirut, Palestinians Ahmad Said, second from left, and Abed Ghosein, third from left, await treatment. (J. Owens/VOA)
In a waiting room in a UNRWA clinic in southern Beirut, Palestinians Ahmad Said, second from left, and Abed Ghosein, third from left, await treatment. (J. Owens/VOA)

The United States, by far UNRWA's biggest donor, confirmed Tuesday that it was cutting funding from an expected $125 million to $60 million, holding back $65 million pending what White House officials said was "future consideration."

The move has left questions hanging over both the future of UNWRA and the 5 million Palestinians eligible for its services in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as those living in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Long-standing relationship

Since UNRWA's creation in 1949, a year after the conflict that drove an estimated 700,000 Palestinians from their lands following the creation of the Israel, the agency has relied on voluntary donations and on American funding in particular.

Last year, for example, the U.S. administration allotted in excess of $350 million, about a third of the agency's budget.

Palestinian children at a UNRWA-run school in Lebanon, one of 700 across the region. (J. Owens/VOA)
Palestinian children at a UNRWA-run school in Lebanon, one of 700 across the region. (J. Owens/VOA)

The latest cut followed warnings from U.S. President Donald Trump and came a month after the American leader's controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — a move welcomed by Israel, but widely condemned by the international community.

On Wednesday, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl warned that the "dignity and human security" of millions of Palestinian refugees were at stake, and he appealed for additional donations from around the world.

No other help

As elsewhere, Palestinians in Lebanon reacted to the announcement with deep concern.

When he was a boy, Said fled with his family to Lebanon from their home in Haifa, which is now the third-largest city in modern-day Israel.

"I remember the streets of Haifa well," he said. "But here we are not treated well, and we must live in tough conditions."

Burj Barajneh is one of 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Conditions in these camps are often grim, and poverty rates high. (J. Owens/VOA)
Burj Barajneh is one of 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Conditions in these camps are often grim, and poverty rates high. (J. Owens/VOA)

Palestinians in Lebanon have struggled in the face of pronounced state-backed discrimination in the form of restrictions barring them from a wide range of professions and bans on owning property.

Of the current Palestinian population in Lebanon, conservatively estimated to be 175,000 in a recent census, two-thirds reportedly live in poverty.

In this context, UNRWA provides a vital lifeline. In Lebanon, its assistance includes direct cash help for 66,000 people, as well as funding for 66 schools and 27 health clinics.

Ola Kanaan recalled the financial assistance given by UNRWA toward her father's cancer treatment, a procedure that would have otherwise been far too expensive for her family to afford.

"Without UNRWA, we have no other source of help," said Kanaan, who was visiting the clinic from a nearby Palestinian camp.

A doctor tends to a visitor at the UNRWA clinic in southern Beirut, one of 27 UNRWA funded clinics in Lebanon. (J. Owens/VOA)
A doctor tends to a visitor at the UNRWA clinic in southern Beirut, one of 27 UNRWA funded clinics in Lebanon. (J. Owens/VOA)

"How could I have helped my father? How could I put my three children through school? What Trump is doing is deeply unfair. If he saw how we lived here, he would change his mind."

A complex relationship

Palestinian views on UNRWA are often tinged with ambivalence amid concerns about its use of money and its political direction.

"It is a reality imposed upon us," said Abed Ghosein, who was also in the clinic because of leg pains. "We have nothing, and it is the only option for us."

But according to Sari Hanafi, a sociologist at the American University of Beirut, UNRWA represents far more than just aid to Palestinians. "UNRWA is a sort of custodian of the Palestinian refugee cause," he said. "If you weaken UNRWA, it has potential consequences on the Palestinian right to return [to what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories]."

A building site in the Palestinian camp of Burj Barajneh in Beirut. Palestinians are not allowed to own property in Lebanon. (J. Owens/VOA)
A building site in the Palestinian camp of Burj Barajneh in Beirut. Palestinians are not allowed to own property in Lebanon. (J. Owens/VOA)

Protest and problems?

There are reports Trump maintained $60 million of funding on the advice of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. But these reports also claimed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley wanted a full cut in order to force the Palestinians to resume peace talks with Israel.

Back at the UNRWA clinic, Ghosein was fatalistic about the actions of the Trump administration. "We are facing a disaster no matter what, and we cannot stop them," he said.

"If these services are cut, people will awake and demand their human rights. There will be protest and there will be problems," he said. "What do you expect from people who have lost everything?"

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