Imagine living in a densely-populated town - so populated, in fact, that there are about 15,000 people living in roughly the size of a quarter of a mile. When residents from 45 surrounding villages began living in this small area about 70 years ago, the area was built to serve roughly 3,000 people - today, the population has grown to five times that amount. There are four schools, one health center, and one environmental health office that serve the entire town. All of these social services are run by one United Nations agency called the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA provides the basic educational, health, infrastructure, emergency response, and social services to the town, which is officially called the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, located in Bethlehem, Palestine.
In the wake of the Arab-Israeli War, which led to the founding of the state of Israel, more than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from villages located in what is now Israel proper. This resulted in the creation of many refugee camps, including Dheisheh. Officially, Palestinian refugee camps were founded in 1949 by UN General Assembly Resolution 302, which defined its residents as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” With this, refugees were able to begin rebuilding their livelihoods in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the surrounding countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Descendants of male registered refugees have been eligible to register as refugees with UNRWA, enabling the original number of 700,000 refugees to grow to over five million people over the succeeding three to four generations since the camps were first established.
UNRWA continues its work by a regular renewal of the UN General Assembly mandate, stating the “importance of its unimpeded operation and its provision of services for the well-being and human development of the Palestinian refugees and for the stability of the region.” According to the latest figures released January 1, 2017, UNRWA sponsored and facilitated the operation of 702 schools for over 515,000 students, managed 143 primary healthcare facilities that provided nearly nine million patient visits in 2016, and bestowed 437,310 microfinance awards to camp residents to develop income-generation opportunities. UNRWA also provides food aid and other basic necessities to camps in a critical state of underdevelopment, such as the refugee camps in Gaza. UNRWA’s priorities are to help Palestinian refugees acquire knowledge and skills, lead long and healthy lives, achieve decent standards of living, and flourish in all areas of life.
This work, which honors the dignity of refugees as people created in the image of God, can only continue to be done through the provision of adequate funding. As with other UN agencies, UNRWA relies on grants and contributions from UN member states, the European Union, and regional governments. These contributions are voluntary and represent over 90 percent of UNRWA’s sources of funding. Historically, the United States has been one of UNRWA’s top funders, contributing over $380 million in 2015 and $355 million in 2016. Altogether, contributions from the U.S. have totaled $5.2 billion since 1994.
However, in the wake of the Trump Administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the State Department announced in January that the United States would withhold $65 million in funding to UNRWA “for future consideration.” This reduction results in a total contribution of only $60 million to UNRWA, which is less than half of its initially promised aid package for 2018. The State Department has stated that the $65 million was withheld to encourage other countries to increase their aid, as well as to promote agency reform within UNRWA. However, this drastic funding cut comes at a very large humanitarian cost and requires unanticipated, quick action by other countries and organizations to fill the funding gap.
Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, stated that the reduction in funding by the U.S. was severe, abrupt, and harmful. In Gaza, the unemployment rate stands at over 40 percent and more than half of its two million residents depend on UNRWA’s food distributions and primary health care services. Cutting aid to UNRWA, which is already underfunded, exacerbates a dire situation for a vulnerable population suffering from malnutrition and poor access to medical care. If inadequately addressed, this situation could potentially lead to a humanitarian crisis.
Some argue that UNRWA should be phased out to allow for the UN High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) to assume responsibilities in its place. UNHCR, which is commissioned to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees, internally displaced people, and stateless people, currently operates in a time of unprecedented human displacement. Over the past few years, the world has witnessed the largest displacement of people since World War II as a result of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and South America. These conflicts have resulted in the displacement of an estimated 65.6 million people from their homes.
Shifting the educational, health, and infrastructural responsibilities for Palestinian refugee camps to another agency that is similarly underfunded will only further exacerbate the stress around meeting the current needs of refugees. Scott Anderson, UNRWA’s Director of Operations in the West Bank field, stresses the critical importance of maintaining UNRWA’s responsibilities:
The U.S. government has been our single largest donor and one of our most valued partners since we first began our operations in 1950; it has always made good on its word. It is part of the American legacy abroad to care for those in need and to not leave the most vulnerable behind. If the U.S. government fails to follow through on the generous support it has always provided to the Palestinian refugees we serve, not only will our operations be at stake, but millions of lives will also be in danger — and the very stability of an already volatile region will be at risk.
On February 8, 2018, Congressmen Peter Welch (D-VT) and David Price (D-NC) released a letter signed by 102 representatives of Congress to President Trump, urging the president to continue providing aid to UNRWA and bilateral assistance to the Palestinians as supportive of “US interests, Israeli and Palestinian security, and the stability of regional US allies.” It emphasizes UNRWA’s work as an integral source of assistance for millions of children in the Palestinian Territories, where more than 50 percent live below the poverty line.
As Christian citizens tasked with the call to do justice and love mercy, what is our responsibility in the face of such a crisis? The Center for Public Justice recognizes in its Guideline on Government that “the proper exercise of governmental authority in the political community . . . must include the legal recognition and impartial protection of human rights and responsibilities, both individual and institutional, that belong to the people and not to government.” As Jesus taught in his parable of the Good Samaritan, love of neighbor requires a recognition of our shared humanity - one that transcends borders, religious affiliation, and tribe. Access to education, health care, and basic sanitation are fundamental to human flourishing, and therefore warrant our tireless support in word and deed.
How then can we love our neighbors in Palestinian refugee camps? We can begin by staying informed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, recognizing the intrinsic dignity of its people and their stories. Having knowledge of the facts surrounding the daily life and environment of Palestinian refugees is a key first step to a comprehensive understanding of the conflict. Additionally, many American churches and other organizations participate in discussion groups and advocacy efforts, including contacting Congressional representatives regarding Israel and Palestine and advocating for the protection of refugees’ human rights and dignity. Specifically, UNRWA’s U.S. office offers several advocacy ideas and opportunities, including an annual 5k race to support mental health care for children and families affected by trauma in Gaza.
The story of the Holy Land continues to be written today. Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth and home of three Palestinian refugee camps, is not simply a historic town that we recognize during the Christmas season. It is a city of thousands of testimonies of displacement and oppression, but also of immense hope and perseverance. It is a place where NGOs are facilitating peacemaking through dialogue and workshops, where Bethlehem Bible College and other universities are educating the next generation of leaders in the West Bank, and where displacement is not the final chapter in the story of this city and its residents. Let us continue to pray for peace and restoration in the Holy Land and for the dignity of every refugee to be recognized.
-Sara Burback served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan, where, in addition to teaching English, she developed a keen interest in democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech (or lack thereof) in the former Soviet Union. She expanded upon this at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where she earned her MA in International Human Rights. She now works at the nonprofit the United States Energy Association in Washington, DC and participates annually in Bethlehem's Right to Movement marathon in defense of the basic human right to movement. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.