BEIRUT - “I love being at school. I want to be a flight engineer when I grow up,” said 5-year-old Rami Maarouf, sitting behind his desk on the first school day at UNRWA’s establishment in Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camp of Mar Elias.
Defying US funding cuts, the schools run by the agency that provides education, health care and emergency assistance to Palestinian refugees, opened normally across Lebanon’s 12 camps catering to some 35,000 students.
“We have started the year with festivities and lots of happiness,” said teacher Rita Khalouf. “We are operating normally. There are fears, decisions are being made that might affect our future but we are not letting all that affect our work.”
It was a day many feared would not come, at least not on time, as UNRWA — formally called the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East — faces some of its toughest pressures in its 68-year history. The Trump administration halted $300 million in planned donations describing the agency serving more than 5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East as an “irredeemably flawed operation” and an obstacle to a settlement between Palestinians and Israel.
UNRWA was founded in 1949 to serve some 700,000 Palestinians who were uprooted from their homes in the war that resulted in the creation of Israel. It operates in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine official Suhail Natour said the greatest effect of the US decision will be felt in Lebanon, where Palestinians depend exclusively on UNRWA’s services.
“The Palestinian refugees in Syria, Jordan and Iraq have all the privileges and rights as the local citizens, except for nationality. Lebanon is the exception. It is the only country that deprived the Palestinians of their human rights,” Natour said.
“Adding to the deprivations of Palestinians in Lebanon will lead to serious security problems. After one, two or three Palestinians die at the door of a Lebanese hospital because they have no right for medical care, the others will eventually resort to violence and arms.”
Palestinian refugees are denied access to Lebanon’s educational and medical facilities, barred from all but the most menial jobs and have no right to own property.
“It is not acceptable that after 70 years since the Palestinians became refugees in Lebanon that they are deprived of their basic human rights. We need to have a margin in the law that allows them to lead a dignified life in Lebanon while waiting for their right to return to their homeland,” Natour said.
Some 450,000 Palestinians are registered with UNRWA in Lebanon but a more plausible estimate, Palestinian officials said, 230,000-250,000. More than 80% of them live below the poverty line, relying exclusively on UNRWA assistance.
Natour said the Trump administration decision “is a Zionist plan to revoke the right to return through the destruction of the core institution that upheld that right for decades.”
“No matter what, the Palestinians will not give up the right to return. It is endorsed in an international resolution and it is not up to the Americans to change it. Their move will only increase the sufferings of the Palestinians and push them towards immigration, violence and extremism,” Natour added.
Dina al-Zammar, the mother of three children, said the spectre of a life without UNRWA’s assistance is terrifying.
“It is a catastrophe for us. How can we educate our children? The agency is definitely an important element in our life. Without it we are destroyed,” she said.
Zammar, an active member of the parents’ committee in Mar Elias, said UNRWA helps in garbage collection in the camp, fixing sewers and other infrastructure work.
“How can we manage without it? We have no other resort despite its limited assistance,” she said. “We will not stand still, we can hold protests and demonstrations. We always have to fight for our rights.”
The US decision on UNRWA is a politically motivated move more than anything else, maintained Ali Rifai, head of the popular committees in Beirut’s Palestinian camps.
“This decision is meant to serve Israel,” Rifai said. “They want to eliminate the cause of the refugees by destroying the structure that perpetuates that cause. They want us to be considered like any other refugees, from Iraq, Syria, et cetera. The difference is that Iraqis and Syrians were displaced by internal conflicts not because of occupation.”
“After Jerusalem, the US administration is trying to scrap the right to return from the agenda of any future negotiations. Basically, they are seeking to set aside the core issues that are preventing a settlement,” Rifai said.
In May, the Trump administration moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, breaking with decades of US policy by recognising the holy city as the capital of Israel.
“Eliminating UNRWA requires eliminating the political and military reasons behind its creation. Removing the special refugee status of the Palestinians is a dangerous matter,” Rifai cautioned.
Samar Kadi is the Arab Weekly society and travel section editor.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.