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.
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.
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.
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.”
- Donald Trump
- Hoping Foundation
- Tilda Swinton
- Gillian Anderson
- Emma Thompson
- James Fox
- Stephen Frears
- Hanif Kureishi
- Will Self
- Gary Lineker
- Brian Eno
- Bella Freud
- Tracy Emin
- Eric Cantona
- Palestinian Refugees
- American Friends Service Committee
- Catholic Relief Services
- Islamic Relief
- Save the Children
- Refugees International
- Jared Kushner
- Nikki Haley
- Sara Roy
- Omar Ghraieb