Outside the Ramallah Elementary School in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, Palestinian mothers wait for the clock to hit noon. Overhead, electric wires crisscross with water tubes. A mural of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock adorns the outer walls of the school as the blue United Nations flag stands atop the gate.
Children dressed in striped blue uniforms squeeze through a steel door, erupting into giggles as they greet their relatives and make their way home. It would have been an average Wednesday at Ramallah had US President Donald Trump’s recent tweets not filled the mothers here with a sense of foreboding.
On Tuesday, Trump said the US pays the Palestinians “HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel … with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
The White House hasn’t specified exactly what the President has in mind. But his words have rattled Palestinians here.
“We’re worried that we won’t be able to send our kids to school anymore,” said Um Mustafa, 37. “When I read his comments, I felt fear, fear for my kids.”
Ramallah is one of nearly 700 schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN body tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees.
The US is UNRWA’s single largest donor — it donated $368 million to the agency in 2016 alone — and a withdrawal of US support could deal a significant blow to its operations.
More than 5 million registered Palestinian refugees benefit from UNRWA’s educational, health and social services. Its operations span the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
The United States is also a major donor to the Palestinian Authority, which administers enclaves of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.
Trump’s outburst Tuesday was apparently aimed at the Palestinian Authority, which condemned Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in a speech last month. Trump’s decision marked a departure from decades of US foreign policy and sparked criticism from several key US allies.
As a result, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the US had “disqualified” itself as a broker in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and rallied the international community to reject the move.
Trump’s tweets on Tuesday also appeared to contradict his previous statement that the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would not affect the final status of Jerusalem in peace negotiations. Instead he said Tuesday that “we have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table.” The White House declined to comment further.
Asked if the US intended to cut funding to UNRWA on Tuesday, US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley said Trump intends to freeze funding to the Palestinians until they “agree to come back to the negotiating table,” and called a Palestinian push for a UN General Assembly vote on Trump’s Jerusalem decision “not helpful to the situation.”
The assembly voted overwhelmingly to declare Trump’s Jerusalem move “null and void” in December.
‘How are Palestinians supposed to survive?’
Three of Um Mohammed’s children attend the Ramallah Elementary School. She said the residents of the Shatila camp can’t live without the help of UNRWA.
“Why does Trump want to punish our children? UNRWA does everything for us. It gives us the medicine, the schooling,” the 34-year-old mother told CNN.
“How are Palestinians supposed to survive otherwise?”
UNRWA’s spokesperson Christopher Gunness said Wednesday that the agency “has not been informed by the United States administration of any changes in US funding to the agency” in the wake of Trump’s tweets.
“UNRWA’s contribution to human development — notably through education and health care services — is described as indispensable to the dignity of Palestine refugees and the stability of the region,” he added.
Around 450,000 refugees are registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, where they are denied several important rights, such as the right to work in some 20 professions. The 12 official Palestinian camps in Lebanon suffer from rampant poverty, overcrowding, high unemployment, poor housing conditions and lack of infrastructure.
Many of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were displaced from historic Palestine in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49, after which the newly created state of Israel denied their return.
Elsewhere in Shatila, the infamous site of a major 1982 massacre, some refugees have adopted a more defiant view towards the US President.
“If Trump is trying to make us bow down to his will, this move only makes us bolder. We don’t give in to blackmail,” said a 53-year-old refugee activist who calls himself Abu el-Nour.
“He can take whatever decision he wants to. If we have to turn our offices to schools so we can educate our children, then so be it,” he said.