International donors play a prominent role in delivering core social services in Palestine, according to the World Bank. So when the United States announced it was ceasing all funding to Palestinian aid and civil society projects, the implications were catastrophic for people living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.
For decades, the U.S. government funded Palestinian programs ranging from education, water and sanitation, to Palestinian Authority security forces. The cuts came in stages over the course of the last year and culminated in February 2019 when every penny of U.S. funding for Palestinians came to a halt.
Below are some of the milestones of the funding cancellation:
- On August 25, 2018, the Trump administration first announced that there would be a $200 million cut in aid funding for programs in Palestine, despite the projected budget of $251 million for the 2018 fiscal year. USAID is the principal U.S. government agency that administers the United States’ foreign assistance program in the West Bank and Gaza. Its services reached nearly all parts of Palestinian daily life. According to its website, USAID has “provided more than $5.5 billion since 1994 for programs in the areas of economic growth; water and infrastructure; education and health; governance and civic engagement; and humanitarian assistance. USAID assistance supports a viable economy and improves the everyday lives of Palestinians.”
- Six days later on August 31st, the U.S. State Department also announced that the U.S. would terminate all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The U.S. has been the largest donator to UNRWA since its creation in 1949, and the aid impacted over five million Palestinians with refugee status. In 2017, the U.S. gave UNRWA more than $360 million in funding. The agency’s 711 schools provide free basic education for Palestinian refugee children in the West Bank – including East Jerusalem – Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The ending of U.S. funding to UNRWA schools impacted 525,000 kids, 50 percent of which are girls.
- A few months later in February 2019, the US stopped all remaining aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in a step linked to new anti-terrorism legislation, the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act. This act allows for U.S. citizens to sue international groups that are receiving U.S. aid for links to any terrorist-related crimes in the past. It is explained, “This means that if the PA will receive even one dollar of U.S. funding, it could face lawsuits asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.” Soon after, the Palestinian Authority (PA) requested that the US state department end all U.S. funding because of a fear of lawsuits. As a result of ATCA, more than $60m in annual funds for the Palestinian security services ended.
Deep Cuts for Palestinian Schools
While the U.S. funding cuts have created a wide-ranging impact, education took a big hit, especially schools that receive UNRWA and USAID funding. Soon after the cuts were announced in August 2018, there was a tense period where the UNRWA was uncertain of the ability to secure the funding necessary to pay the 22,000 teachers in their schools and open their 711 doors for the 2018 school year.
After the cuts were announced, the Commissioner General for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Pierre Krahenbuhl declared the need of an addition of $217 million to ensure the opening of the schools for the 2018 school year. Fundraising efforts were initiated, such as the Dignity is Priceless campaign, and the UNRWA began making appeals to Member States to increase their funding pledges.
When the time came for the schools to open in September 2018, there were enough funds to start the school year, but there was still uncertainty in how long the funds would last. Certain positions at UNRWA schools deemed non-essential were cut because of the lack of funding, and funding for the 2019/2020 school year remains uncertain.
Undermining Women and Girls’ Economic Inclusion
Many fear that cuts to education will have a uniquely negative impact on Palestinian women and girls. When society or institutions start to break down because of lack of investment, women are even further burdened by the domestic responsibilities they are traditionally associated with, said Susan Markham, USAID’s former senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Managing time between professional responsibilities and “housework” becomes an even greater challenge. “It’s something that is not measured oftentimes, but has a real impact on everyday women’s lives,” she adds.
“USAID really focused on helping [Palestinian] women gain economic empowerment,” says Markham. It involved programs that put girls through high school, funded internships and mentorships, and helped women start their own companies, creating a positive cycle where women “were being valued by the community as a business owner or a worker able to bring money home to the family.” These changes, she says, helped shift gender attitudes in Palestinian society. Without USAID and UNRWA programs that were promoting gender equality through education, fewer opportunities exist for women to participate as active members in society.
Continued Uncertainty as NGOs Try to Fill the Gap
Palestinian school funding is still uncertain in 2019. The UNRWA made difficult decisions in adapting to the new budget, including the elimination of many school positions. Though its schools still functions, the UNRWA’s capacity to carry out its usual programming has been reduced.
The impact of school instability on student stress levels in palable. Hada, a fourteen-year-old student at a UNRWA school in Gaza, told the United Nations News Service that “everyone was very anxious,” and when students tried to visit the school counselor’s office, she added, “they were reminded that she was no longer there.”
Another student, Eva, 14 told UN News: “The school is trying as much as it can to teach us in a hands-on method, and in past years when we studied chemistry we used to do experiments. I have dreams to be something big in the future, but I have to cut those dreams down because of the situation we live in now.”
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-written by Megan Collette, Supporting Hope Spring 2019 intern