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Friday’s announcement by the Trump administration that it was slashing $200 million in aid to the Gaza Strip and West Bank was only the latest in a series of moves targeting relief for displaced Palestinians and their descendants.
For Jordan – home to millions of Palestinian refugees – there is growing concern these developments could have profound implications at home.
The US moves “raise existential fears,” Amman-based political commentator and columnist Osama al-Sharif told Asia Times. “The Palestinian refugee issue is something that touches major sensitivities on all sides of the political divide.”
Some fear the cuts in funding to refugees is but the first step in dismantling their refugee status, removing the Palestinians’ right of return to their ancestral homes – now in Israeli-controlled territory – and irrevocably shifting the demography of the kingdom.
Wishing away five million
Since 1948, when advancing Israeli tanks first pushed columns of Palestinians to flee across the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, these displaced people and their descendants have been a major presence in the kingdom.
Whole suburbs of the capital, Amman, have formed out of the camps set up to house them, while many Palestinians have gone on to become important leaders in business and commerce.
Following the deadly events of Black September in 1970, when the Jordanian military moved to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization from its territory, the kingdom has managed a delicate political balance between ethnic Palestinians and indigenous Jordanians.
As refugees, the ethnic Palestinians have also continued to press their right of return to their former homes – and those they inherited from their parents and grandparents.
Since 1948, those refugees – and the many who have joined them since – have enjoyed the support of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA).
Now catering to 5.3 million registered refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, UNRWA provides education, health, micro-finance and community services across this wide geography.
Yet now, in its 70th year, it is facing a profound crisis.
Its biggest donor – the US – has embarked on some major policy shifts in how it deals with the Palestinians and the UN.
Last Friday’s announcement from Washington was part of that shift, as was the Trump administration’s decision in January to freeze $60 million of its funding to UNRWA, while seeking “a way to better manage” the agency’s budget and finances.
In July, a number of US Republicans introduced a bill to Congress aimed at severely restricting UNRWA’s beneficiaries, by limiting aid to those who fled Mandate Palestine during the original 1948 exodus – roughly 40,000 people. That would cut out the generations born into refugee camps in Jordan and the wider Middle East, as well as those Palestinians who fled their lands during subsequent wars.
The Republican proposal was soon followed by a report in Foreign Policy magazine that suggested President Trump’s Middle East czar, Jared Kushner, and his colleague Jason Greenblatt actively wanted to disrupt UNRWA.
The plan further envisioned revoking the refugee status of Jordan’s 2.17 million-strong Palestinian population, effectively forcing the kingdom to submerge those numbers into its own population.
While the Jordanian government subsequently denied such a request had been made, the report touched a nerve in the kingdom and the proposal was widely lambasted in the local press.
It also triggered a response from UNRWA chief Pierre Krahenbuhl, who told the Associated Press on August 24: “One cannot simply wish five million people away.”
While many of Jordan’s ethnic Palestinians no longer have need of UNRWA’s services, nearly 60,000 still use its social safety net, according to the agency’s own statistics.
UNRWA also supports 171 schools and 25 primary health care facilities in Jordan, which educate and care for some 121,000 students and 1.5 million patients annually.
The agency’s assistance is thus still of major significance in the kingdom, as is its ability to function independently of the country’s own budget.
“Given the economic challenges in Jordan at the moment,” Ghaith al-Omari, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute, told Asia Times, “removing UNRWA funding would be a big shock to an already overstretched system.”
UNRWA and the Jordanian government have been scrambling to try and fill the gaps left by cuts in US funding. Jordan organized an international donors conference back in March and is now planning for a second on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in mid-September.
“Failure to provide the necessary funding for UNRWA would deprive over half a million Palestinian children’s right in education and decent living conditions,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said in a statement on August 25.
Agency authorities have announced that all UNRWA schools will open “on time” for the new school year – but warned that question marks remain over paying teacher’s salaries beyond September.
“We need a further $217 million to ensure that our schools not only open but can be run until the end of the year,” Krahenbuhl told an emergency meeting of the UNWRA Advisory Commission in Amman last week.
For Jordan, the prospect of absorbing the entire Palestinian refugee population is a threat to its demographic balance.
“This is very sensitive,” said Al Sharif of the Washington Institute, “because people of Palestinian origin are already a majority in Jordan. While a lot of them are citizens already, if all of them were, this would likely have political consequences.
“It’s also linked to an Israeli idea that Jordan is Palestine, so the Palestinians should just take over here,” he added.
There is also a fear that this idea might prompt a full Israeli take-over of the West Bank, creating another wave of Palestinian refugees heading into Jordan.
Another concern is the impact such a change might have on the current calm in the Palestinian areas within the country.
“The refugee areas, or camps, have been very quiet in recent times,” said columnist Omari. “But any change in status would meet a lot of opposition – it would inevitably lead to increased instability in the camps and in the country.”
This would also serve to undermine a monarchy that has long been a key ally of the US.
Yet this may not deter the Trump administration.
“US allies are being humiliated and insulted by Washington on a daily basis these days,” said Sharif. “Look at Europe, look at Turkey. Why should Jordan be any different?”