Celebrities back Palestinian refugees as Trump makes new threats

US President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the gathering of global elites in Davos on Thursday. (via Facebook)

Prominent actors and artists are rallying to support UNRWA, as US President Donald Trump issues new threats to cut funding to the UN agency that works to meet the basic humanitarian needs of five million Palestinian refugees.

“We stand for dignity for the most vulnerable, and we stand with Palestinian refugees who are facing a terrible moment,” the celebrities say in a statement published by the Hoping Foundation on Thursday.

Among those speaking out are actors Hugh Grant, Gillian Anderson, Emma Thompson, James Fox and Tilda Swinton; writers Hanif Kureishi and Will Self and directors Ken Loach and Stephen Frears.

Also endorsing the statement are musician Brian Eno, fashion designer Bella Freud, artist Tracy Emin and soccer greats Eric Cantona and Gary Lineker.

A former England captain and now a BBC sportscaster, Lineker was recently the target of an Israel lobby backlash for tweeting his outrage at the mistreatment of Palestinian children detained by the Israeli military.

“Peoples across the world have always supported the Palestinian struggle for freedom, and understand that Palestinian refugees – the most vulnerable – are the key to hope, and to any chance of a peaceful future,” the celebrities say.

They call on the UN secretary general to “immediately convene a conference that can establish a stable funding system in order to protect UNRWA’s vital work.”

Israel seeks to destroy UNRWA as part of its effort to erase the right of return of Palestinian refugees from the international agenda. Israel opposes allowing Palestinians to return to the homes and lands from which they were ethnically cleansed because they are not Jews.

Trump threats

The Trump administration has already withheld $110 million in planned contributions precipitating what the agency has called “the worst financial crisis in UNRWA’s history.”

But on Thursday, the president made more threats to cut aid.

Speaking next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the gathering of global elites in the Swiss resort of Davos, Trump accused Palestinian Authority leaders of disrespecting the US by refusing to meet Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to the region earlier this week.

“That money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump told reporters. “Because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace, and they’re going to have to want to make peace too, or we’re going to have nothing to do with it any longer.”

Trump also repeated his assertion that his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – which has been rejected by Palestinians and much of the world – meant that the future of the city was “off the table” in any negotiations.

That flies in the face of assurances Trump gave in December that his statement on Jerusalem and his decision to move the US embassy there did not mean he was taking a position on “any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.”

Trump asserted at the time that “those questions are up to the parties involved,” to be resolved in negotiations which, following his latest outburst, now look more unlikely than ever.

Punishing civilians

But while a “peace process” remains a vanishingly remote prospect, further damage and suffering for Palestinians is imminent.

On Wednesday, the leaders of 21 international humanitarian agencies wrote to the Trump administration objecting in “the strongest terms” to the funding cuts to UNRWA.

The groups, including Save the Children, the American Friends Service Committee, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam and Islamic Relief, said the cuts would have “dire consequences” for “life-sustaining assistance to children, women and men in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

“This decision is aimed at punishing Palestinian political leaders and forcing them to make political concessions,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International and a former US assistant secretary of state. “But it is wrong to punish political leaders by denying life-sustaining aid to civilians.”

Top Trump aides, including son-in-law Jared Kushner and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, have pushed for the harsh cuts as a way to force Palestinians to concede their rights.

Education at stake

Further drastic reductions in US assistance would likely force UNRWA to cut the education of more than half a million children, according to Sara Roy, author of The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development.

“Unlike other UN agencies that may face draconian budget cuts, such as the World Food Program, which can proportionately reduce the amount of food it distributes (which is itself tragic), UNRWA cannot provide a third less education to its students,” Roy wrote for The Nation this week. “It would have to end the provision of education in order to preserve other life-giving services, principally in health.”

According to Roy, UNRWA “was nearly forced to do this during a financial crisis in 2015, and it will likely have to do so now.”

The US has been the largest single donor to UNRWA, providing almost $370 million of the agency’s $1.2 billion budget in 2016.

#DignityIsPriceless

In an effort to head off the looming disaster, UNRWA, which is largely funded by voluntary contributions from governments, is turning to the public to help raise urgently needed funds.

The agency had made its direct fundraising appeal the most prominent feature of its website.

Gaza writer Omar Ghraieb was among many social media users using the hashtag #DignityIsPriceless to talk about UNRWA’s work.

“During field work and journalism, I’ve met families in southern rural areas who lost everything during Israel’s assaults and rely on UNRWA for free education, food and healthcare,” Ghraieb tweeted. “They’d have nothing without UNRWA. Not exaggerating.”

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Noam Chomsky was right when during an interview with Democracy Now he called the Israel sadistic sociopaths. Now instead of dropping bombs on Gazans (which they continue to do) the Israel want to starve them. Sickening.

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All US aid whether to the PA, UNRWA or Arab countries neighbouring Israel, is for pacification for Israel's benefit. Therefore, strictly speaking is it part and parcel of the astronomic aid package given to Israel. Besides, if the PA is unable to function or disbanded, the Palestinians under occupation become Israel's responsibility in every aspect of life under international law. Therefore, withholding aid as a stick against the Palestinians is short-sighted to say the least.

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So the Palestinians are further oppressed because they refuse to kiss the boot that is on their throats .
Something is very wrong with American politics.

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I've seen nothing with respect to the other donor countries. What is the position of their governments on this urgent issue? Are they prepared to contribute more to make up the shortfall? And what of the great and magnanimous oligarchs, their foundations and charities? I'm looking at you, George Soros, Bill and Melinda Gates, the Clinton Foundation. If these sources redirect a small portion of their collective wealth to UNRWA, this crisis can be alleviated. People won't have to decide between food and medicine, schoolrooms and tents.

Why not strive to make the U.S. role completely redundant? There has to be a better way than relying on the world's most notorious "honest broker"?

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I agree...370 Million seems like Peanuts, and easily replaceable with so many wealthy countries that might like to jump in. There are the oil rich countries, notwithstanding that the Sunni ones might be pressured by the US to NOT contribute, but so what. There is Iran, Iraq. And what about China with its Belt and Road thinking, looking to build links with countries around the world. If the US wants to Isolate itself, this seems like and OPPORTUNITY, not a Problem. Let's use this Drama to push the US even further out of the mix in resolving Palestine's, and Israel's Problems with each other.

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Trump's cutting of UNWRA's funding may actually be a blessing in disguise. It focuses media attention on the plight of the refugees, and because it's Trump doing the cutting, it's now fashionable for the Resistance(TM) crowd to support Palestinian rights, hence the celebrity support.

While the celebrities' statement is appropriate and welcome, I doubt it would have been issued had the funding been cut by a president Hillary Clinton, which well could have happened, given her desire to take the US/Israeli relationship "to the next level."

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I have been following this heartbreaking story since the early 60’s and I’ve tried to understand but in all my life I’ve never been able to accept or to forgive The Israelis for their despicable treatment of the Palestinians. Nor am I a great fan of my own country who destroyed our native Americans. But we just continue declaring ourselves as “good people”, whatever happens, whoever gets slaughtered, it makes no difference. When will we ever learn? The answer is blowing in the wind as the people said way back then but the real answer is NEVER, never, never again. Without hope or prayer...

Ali Abunimah

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.