Over the past month, the Trump administration has slashed over half a billion dollars in assistance to the Palestinians. The humanitarian impact is already being felt and promises to be devastating.
In late August, the United States cut $200 million in bilateral funding for aid organizations assisting Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza—disregarding preexisting multi-year commitments. On August 31, the Trump administration went on to announce that it would withhold $300 million and “not make additional contributions to UNRWA”—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East—a main provider of assistance and services to millions of vulnerable people. Finally, the administration recently indicated that it would not provide $25 million in pledged bilateral assistance for East Jerusalem hospitals.
Refugees International (RI) recently traveled to the region to evaluate the impact of these devastating cuts on Gaza. We spoke with the affected populations and aid workers who are scrambling to respond. Many viewed the U.S. cuts as collective punishment or as a tool to bring political pressure to bear on the Palestinian leadership to broker a peace deal. But they all agreed on one thing: the cuts are going to have a massive impact on the ability of aid workers to meet humanitarian needs in Gaza without a significant and immediate injection of cash from other donors.
The well-being of over a million Gazans is at stake. UNRWA not only provides food, education, and health services to over 70 percent of the population of Gaza, but it also employs more than twelve thousand locals. Due to budget cuts, UNRWA is now scaling down operations and may be unable to keep its 267 schools open beyond this September. Layoffs have begun and are expected to continue; thereby creating need among a segment of the population where it did not already exist. Thousands will join the 50 percent of Gazans who are already unemployed.
Israel has heavily restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza for decades now. The entry of food and medicine is limited. The exit of Palestinians—whether to receive life-saving medical treatment unavailable in Gaza, attend any education or professional training, or visit family and friends—is subject to intense scrutiny. Over time, these limitations have only become more severe. Fewer and fewer Gazans are being giving permission to leave. The restrictions on movement will only compound the impact of the halt in U.S. assistance.
Furthermore, Gaza’s energy crisis has rapidly deteriorated over the last few months. Its main power plant is only 50 percent functional, and energy provided from Israel and Egypt is both insufficient and unpredictable. Many use generators during power cuts. But these generators need fuel, and the lines that provide that fuel have been damaged by repeated conflict. Gaza’s fuel supply is quickly depleting. As a result, hospitals and water pumping and sewage treatment facilities are left without power for significant portions of the day.
For dozens of years, UNRWA has been a major provider for millions of people. The scaling down of its operations will create a gap in service provision that no one can fill quickly as the situation deteriorates. NGOs are unable to step up as the Trump administration’s earlier decision to cut funding has led them to halt operations and lay-off their staff. Other UN Agencies do not have the funds, willingness, or expertise to fill UNRWA’s shoes, and also operate at a higher cost.
Many humanitarians acknowledge that there is room for improvement within the agency. But no one we spoke with felt that massive and abrupt aid cuts were part of the solution. None of the usual western donors are now well positioned to pick up the slack. And there is little indication that donors in the Gulf are prepared to step into the breach.
The hopelessness felt by Gaza’s population is tangible. A Gazan told RI that many now feel that “drinking undrinkable water at home is just as dangerous as walking up to the fence [that divides Gaza from Israel] and being killed.” Another local aptly told us: “for Gazans, there is no day after UNRWA.” These simple statements depict the bleakness of the situation as the cuts take their toll. The hopelessness will only be magnified over the coming months as needs spiral and go unmet and the population remains trapped within its borders.
Refugees International’s field report following its September Gaza mission is forthcoming.