SEATTLE, Washington — H.R. Bill 7608, introduced to the House Appropriations Committee on July 13, proposes funding for various USAID Programs and UNRWA’s mission to support Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the West Bank. Although the Senate has not yet taken up this bill, constituents across the country are meeting with their senators as a part of the American Muslims for Palestine’s (AMP) Annual Palestine Advocacy Conference. More than 800 registered attendees have met with their congressional leaders to gain support for various bills including H.R. 7608. This article will highlight the change to Palestinian aid and funding for UNRWA under the new administration, the importance of H.R. Bill 7608 and how AMP mobilizes support for the bill.
Palestinian Aid under the Trump Administration
The United States gives the most foreign aid to developing countries, making it the top donor country. Additionally, the United States is also the largest donor for Palestinian aid and humanitarian assistance, especially for nonprofit non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency or UNRWA. However, in 2018, Trump terminated U.S funding for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza and Syria. This resulted in a loss of $360 million of funding for UNRWA and $250 million and for Economic Support Fund (ESF) programs.
Recently, however, a few Congressional leaders expressed discontent with this decision. In April, Senator Chris Coons led a group of senators and representatives in writing a letter to the Trump administration. Their letter pushed for the release and disbursement of aid for Palestinian refugees to alleviate circumstances during COVID-19. This resulted in the Trump Administration giving $5 million in funding. However, while this might be a great achievement, $5 million is only 1% of the original terminated budget.
UNRWA Deeply Affected
The U.N. established UNRWA in 1949, shortly after the 1948 Exodus. The NGO provides humanitarian assistance to 5.6 million Palestinian refugees and is important for ensuring stability in the volatile region. UNRWA delivers its services directly to the Palestinian refugees by educating 530,000 students in more than 700 schools. It also operates a primary healthcare system with about 8.5 million annual patient visits. In addition, 99% of the staff are locally hired, which provides employment to many individuals in need of an income. However, UNRWA relies on the funding it receives to provide these services.
UNRWA urgently requires $200 million, $95 million for its COVID-19 response and $43 million for regular food and cash assistance. As a result of the termination of funding in 2018, many of UNRWA’s projects such as roads, educational programs and healthcare programs were left unfinished. Without this budget, which mostly comes from U.S. funding, UNRWA is unable to provide services that these refugees desperately need.
H.R. 7608 – A Bill of Hope
On July 13, Rep. Lowey of New York’s 17th District introduced House Bill 7608, which is the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Appropriations Act for the fiscal year of 2021. This bill would restore about $225 million in funding for UNRWA and USAID related programs. The House passed H.R. 7608, but there wasn’t much hope the Senate would pass it before the 2020 election. However, many advocates for the Palestinians and this bill are hopeful that the U.S. will restore funding.
AMP Inspires Palestinian Advocates
American Muslims for Palestine, a national education and grassroots advocacy organization, was founded in 2006 by Hatem Bazian. It is dedicated to educating the American public about Palestine, its history and its culture in the context of human rights under International and American civil law. The Executive Director of AMP, Dr. Osama Abuirshaid, and his team have worked diligently on advocating for Palestinian lives and providing educational material on the cause.
AMP has also organized an annual Palestine Advocacy Day. Since 2015, students, community activists and organizers have come to discuss civic engagement, policy work and advocacy exclusively within the context of the Palestinians. At the end of their training, attendees meet with Congressional leaders to discuss legislation and lobby for bills. This year, AMP held the Palestine Advocacy conference virtually from September 14 to September 16 due to the COVID-19 restrictions. The conference had more than 800 attendees and more than 150 Congressional meetings in which one of the “asks” that the constituents addressed was about funding for UNRWA and restoring aid to the Palestinians through H.R. Bill 7608.
Although it may seem that the solution to the Palestinian conflict is out of reach, the humanitarian assistance that Palestinian refugees receive through UNRWA is essential to ensuring security, peace and the survival of many individuals below the poverty line. AMP has worked hard to gather individuals that share their support for the Palestinian people and funding for UNRWA. This mobilization has led so many constituents all over the country, in every state, to step up and meet with their Congressional leaders so that they restore the aid Palestinian refugees need.
– Nada Abuasi