At the entrance of the Aida refugee camp, right around the corner from the Intercontinental Hotel, a jeep belonging to the Palestinian police was parked.
It is the last Christmas of the year—the one Armenians celebrate—and President Mahmoud Abbas will make a visit to this community in Bethlehem. The police are watching the narrow path that leads to the camp and the mural, which reads “Welcome to Aida Camp.” They are there to prevent kids from throwing stones, and it is not clear whether these would be aimed at Abbas himself or at the Israeli military stationed just behind the wall.
The soldiers from Tel Aviv are maintaining a visible presence as well: They walk out from the metal gate that bars the road connecting Bethlehem to Jerusalem, they march toward the children playing along the concrete barrier; then they march back. On the streets of the camp itself, comprising 5,000 residents in an area of 500 square meters, there is almost no one.
The blue gate of the UNRWA food distribution center is closed, and there is nothing inside. There’s nothing unusual about that, they say: It opens once every three months to give out 100 shekels (€20) worth of flour, rice, sugar, lentils and oil for each. “The services that UNRWA is providing today are scarce and of low quality,” says Mohammed Abu Sosr, a 27-year-old from the village of Beit Nattif, destroyed in 1948 by Zionist paramilitaries. “They offer schools, clinics and food distribution—crucial services, but which are steadily getting worse.”
The crisis in which the U.N. agency, which has been running the Palestinian refugee camps in the occupied territories and in the diaspora for almost 70 years, now finds itself is nothing new. For years, the different commissioners at its head have been appealing to the world to respect its commitments, but its budget has been gradually, and dangerously, shrinking.
Now, the decision by the U.S. to cut $65 million from its aid is set to throw the agency into an even worse crisis. Beside the suspension of half of the first instalment of aid, a new announcement was made on Thursday: Another $45 million that was promised in mid-December by the State Department has been cancelled as well. Others have stepped up to try to plug the hole, with Belgium pledging to send $20 million over the next three years.
To the refugees, this is not a dispute about finances. It’s political. “To attack UNRWA means not only to deprive the refugees of aid, but to question their right to receive it,” says Mohammed. “It means denying their very existence, the international recognition of their refugee status. UNRWA, despite its financial crisis, represents the commitment that the world assumed in 1948; it represents U.N. Resolution 194, which recognizes their right to return.”
“Let’s say they close down UNRWA,” his colleague Salim at the Aida Youth Center adds. “They will have to find an alternative solution. Will they put everything on the shoulders of the countries hosting the refugees? These have already made it clear that we are a burden to them and will not agree to an even heavier one. There is only one solution: for them to return to Palestine, to put an end to this ‘temporarily permanent’ situation.”
“The aid has been cut even before Trump,” says an old woman who opens her door to us. She became a refugee when she was a child. She sits down with her walking stick and cannot contain her frustration about living for 70 years as an exile. “Every three months they give 100 shekels of food, but they won’t even do that anymore, because there are no funds. And even with 100 shekels every 90 days, how can I manage to live?”
As we find out from BADIL (an organization founded in response to the Oslo Accords and committed to the right of the refugees to return), the gates of the distribution center should have opened last week. But no official showed up, and no food parcels have been distributed.
The most dire fears concern the schools and clinics that operate in 19 refugee camps in the West Bank and eight in Gaza. There, the situation is explosive: Between 1.3 and two million Gazans are registered as refugees. In the Occupied Territories, UNRWA operates 363 schools attended by 311,000 children, 64 clinics, three microfinance offices and 19 women’s centers.
And even if the services being offered have problems, at least they exist. Mohammed adds as a parting thought: “If you take these away, it would force many families to jump through hoops to find money for education and health, taking away all the time and energy they would have spent demanding their rights.” It is, in the end, a political matter.