The right to live

The right to live

By Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach

“We are human beings. We need the right to live,” a Syrian Palestinian family told me when I visited Lebanon several years ago. The family was receiving a food voucher from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) that helped them buy basic items like rice, oil and bread.

Unable to work legally in Lebanon, the family depended on a small stipend from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to help pay their rent. But that stipend had been reduced recently due to lack of funds. Now UNRWA faces yet more funding cuts.

An UNRWA health clinic in Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut. Credit: MCC Photo/Doug Hostetter.

Begun in 1950, UNRWA today provides assistance such as education and health services to more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Some of these refugees, like the ones I spoke with in Lebanon, have been displaced several times. Their families settled in Syria after fleeing their homes in Palestine in 1948, and in more recent years have fled to Lebanon as a result of the fighting in Syria.

In early January, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations  threatened to cut aid to Palestinians, a threat echoed by President Trump the next day. Ironically the threats can be traced back to a U.S. action—President Trump’s declaration in December that Jerusalem belongs to Israel and, by implication, not the Palestinians.

This was an incredibly controversial stance to take—one that no other U.S. administration and few other countries in the world have taken, as it is in direct violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions. Palestinians, understandably, did not accept the idea that the U.S. had “resolved” this thorny issue in favor of the Israelis. President Mahmoud Abbas subsequently announced he will not participate in further peace negotiations led by the U.S. until the stance is reversed.

Because the U.S. did not like the Palestinians’ response, it now plans to “punish” Palestinians by cutting off aid. On January 16, the U.S. announced it was withholding $65 million of its commitment to UNRWA, with further funding in question. A cut of this magnitude would be devastating to UNRWA, as the U.S. is the single largest donor to the agency.

The people who would suffer the most are families like the one I spoke with, many of whom already live in extremely difficult circumstances, particularly in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. U.S. attempts to cut off aid to these families are short-sighted and counter-productive.

First, the U.S. decided that Palestinians had no right to the city of Jerusalem. Now it has apparently decided that they don’t deserve to have their basic human needs met either. Remind Congress that Palestinians, too, have the rights to be treated as human beings. Ask them to ensure that the U.S. continues to fund UNRWA.