JERUSALEM — Franciscan Sister Bridget Tighe, the new director of Caritas in Jerusalem, is deeply concerned about the Trump administration’s decision to withhold more than $100 million in funding to the U.N. Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which has been supporting Palestinian refugees for 70 years.
Sister Bridget, a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, has headed Caritas’ Gaza office for the past three years. She is worried first and foremost about the refugees, but also about the strain this reduced funding to UNRWA could put on humanitarian aid organizations that serve Palestinians in the Middle East.
“Most of the people in Gaza are poor to destitute,” said the sister. “A very experienced pediatrician who has worked with UNRWA put it this way: ‘The people are already at zero. If UNRWA can provide fewer services, they will fall below zero.’”
Unless UNRWA, which has launched an international fundraising campaign, is able to make up the shortfall, “there could be more demand on organizations like Caritas,” a Catholic humanitarian aid organization.
“If this happens, we would be stretched to be able to provide services,” Sister Bridget told the Register.
As it is, extremely poor families ask Caritas for extra assistance.
“I have been to homes where there was no food,” the Franciscan sister said.
During the past month, the State Department announced it would withhold $110 million from UNRWA unless the organization carries out a “fundamental re-examination” of its operations to improve efficiency. So far this year, the U.S., which is UNRWA’s largest donor, has given the agency $60 million, according to Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s chief spokesman. Last year the U.S. donated $350 million.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a press briefing that the funding freeze “does not mean [funding] will not be provided in the future.” But she added that the U.S. is no longer prepared to bear most of the burden.
“Money coming in from other countries needs to increase as well to continue paying for all those refugees,” Nauert said.
A month after President Donald Trump announced that he was thinking of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he criticized the Palestinians for their alleged ingratitude for the financial support the U.S. has continually provided.
“We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” Trump tweeted.
Another of the president’s tweets stated, “With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
Critics of UNRWA question why the U.N. continues to operate a separate agency apart from the UNHCR refugee agency and continues to categorize as refugees not only the Palestinians who were displaced in 1948 and 1967, but all of their descendants.
Although many of the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced during the 1948 war have died, the number of people UNRWA supports has swelled to 5 million.
Gunness defended his agency’s role to provide medical, educational and other assistance to Palestinian refugees “until there is a just and lasting” solution to their refugee status. In the meantime, he told reporters, “This dramatically reduced contribution results in the most severe funding crisis in the history of the agency.”
Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land, said Church leaders are concerned that Trump’s recent actions “could lead to instability in the region. His decisions appear to be more emotional than rational, and here in the region we believe he’s becoming more of the problem than the solution.”
Abunassar estimated that “less than 2%” of the Palestinian refugees being assisted by UNRWA are Christians. That number was 15%-20% right after the 1948 war, he said.
“Over the years, Christian refugees immigrated to various countries, and the fertility rate among Muslims is very high, so their percentage in the population grew,” he said.
Impact on Christian Charities
But Christian charities play a major role in helping Palestinian Christians and Muslims, regardless of their refugee status, “and the demand for them will only grow,” Abunassar said. “Their budgets were already insufficient. Various charities, including Catholic ones, were crying to answer the needs of Palestinians, who suffer a very high rate of poverty and has no real functioning social security system.”
Agencies that receive funding from UNRWA may have even more reason for concern.
Michele Bowe, president of Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, which is located within the Palestinian Authority, said that 40% of the hospital’s patients are refugees.
“UNRWA gives us a small reimbursement for care. In light of the U.S. funding cuts to UNRWA, it is lowering the amount of money it is paying us. This will impact our budget,” the hospital administrator said.
Bowe noted that Bethlehem has three refugee camps, so the already-depressed local economy would take a hit if UNRWA lays off many of its 30,000 workers.
“It will create more unease and unemployment. The Christians, who are mostly in the hospitality business, will be hurt the hardest” by violence and unrest that scares away pilgrims, Bowe said.
Sister Bridget said much will depend on how UNRWA chooses to curtail its services if the money isn’t found to support them.
Although Gunness said that UNRWA has not yet cut any services, he acknowledged that a shortage of funds would make this inevitable.
Sister Bridget said that if UNRWA cuts back on food provisions, “it would be extremely difficult for the poorest of the poor. People in Gaza aren’t starving, but many are undernourished.”
If education is cut back, “it would cause long-term damage to the children, because it would hold them back as adults,” the sister said, adding that UNRWA employs thousands of teachers who support their families as well as the Palestinian economy.
UNRWA also provides basic health care to all refugees and is a partner in Gaza’s excellent vaccination program.
“If that were cut back, and I think it would be the last thing to go,” the sister said, “I dread to think what would happen.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.
She writes from Jerusalem.