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Trump's Refugee Funding Cut Could Cause an 'Explosive Situation' in the Middle East, U.N. Officials Say

President Donald Trump’s decision to cut funding for approximately 5 million Palestinian refugees could cause an “explosive situation” in the Middle East as schools fail to reopen in September and the living conditions become even more precarious for vulnerable populations, United Nations officials said Monday.

For nearly 70 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East has provided assistance to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In January, the agency’s largest donor, the United States, suddenly cut its contribution by 83 percent—about $300 million.

If the organization doesn’t find a way to replace the U.S. contribution, the consequences could be disastrous, U.N. officials said.

“What happens to UNRWA has a spillover effect in the region,” Peter Mulrean, director of UNRWA's New York office, said during a meeting at the United Nations headquarters on Monday, adding that the cut could cause an "explosive situation."

“Gaza had already become unsustainable. One million people there are receiving food assistance. After the summer, without additional funding, can we open schools in September?” Mulrean asked. 

932347638 Palestinian women hold signs in Arabic reading "Save Gaza before it explodes in your faces" and "Abandoning the UNRWA means the explosion of the refugee time bombs," during a demonstration outside the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in Gaza City on March 15. Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. government did not give an official reason for why it decided to cut funds to UNRWA, but some experts said they believed the decision was based on Trump’s desire to reduce the U.S. involvement worldwide and shift responsibilities to other countries. What's more, Trump and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., have both suggested that the funding cut was meant to punish Palestinians for refusing to enter into negotiations with Israel. 

“We are still waiting for a clear explanation for what the U.S. motivation was to not fully fund [UNRWA]. We have heard people in public talk about two things: One is diversifying the base of donors so the U.S. pays less, and the other is some question of reform for UNRWA,” Mulrean said. “We still don’t know what those reforms are that they might be talking about.”

Israel's leadership has long accused the U.N. agency of perpetuating the refugee crisis by giving Palestinians false hope that they could one day return home. The agency's supporters, however, point out that few refugees are permanently resettled elsewhere, and someone has to provide them with education, food, health care and other social services. 

In response to the U.S. funding cut, other players have stepped up to the plate and provided UNRWA with more support than usual. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have all donated $50 million to UNRWA's budget, officials said Monday. Canada started giving UNRWA's money again for the first time in six years, pledging $25 million. Belgium, India, Mexico, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Korea also have increased donations. Nevertheless, the funding gap is still substantial.  

For now, the new donors have allowed the agency to spend the money as planned. But the U.S. decision to reduce its contribution dramatically could change the way the agency spends money in the future, officials said. Consequently, Trump’s decision could cause the U.S. to lose influence in the Middle East.

930808310 A Palestinian refugee holds a placard during a protest against U.S. aid cuts to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, on March 12. Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, experts argue that UNRWA will only become superfluous when the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is resolved. Trump’s decision in December last year to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—a move decried by Palestinians and even U.S. allies in the Middle East—only ignited passions in the region, Ambassador Richard Murphy, a retired career diplomat who spent decades working on the Middle East, said Monday.

In response to Trump’s announcement, the Palestinian leadership said it no longer considered the U.S. a credible mediator for negotiations. The Palestinian leadership also refused to meet with Vice President Mike Pence when he visited the region in January.

During his visit to Jordan on Monday, newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he believed a two-state solution to the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians was a “likely outcome.” But the U.S. peace plan for the Middle East has not yet been unveiled, and experts said it was not likely that a solution would be reached before the situation became dangerous.

“A lack of a permanent political solution [to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians] is what makes UNRWA necessary,” ambassador Murphy said. “Gaza is 80 percent dependent on UNRWA for its basic needs. The place will be unlivable by 2020, and that’s very soon. The level of tension and frustration this is building towards could lead to further unrest.”

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