Majed Jameel is overloaded.
As a teacher in the West Bank, he is used to pressure. Recently, clashes between students and Israeli soldiers resulted in clouds of tear gas floating into his school’s playground in Hebron. But Jameel could deal with that. The event was not unusual. It was a kind of pressure he understood.
But his current situation is different.
Jameel has seen his classes almost double in size since the U.S. cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) last year.
His once well-controlled social studies class at the Hebron Boys’ School has become crowded and wild. Four children now share desks made for two. Hands are raised at the same time, noise spreads through the classroom when he stops for questions.
Jameel says, “You spend most of the class time restraining student interactions or fights and have no time left to track their homework and classwork ... or give one-on-one help.”
The U.S. aid cuts have affected all of UNRWA’s operations. But it has done the greatest harm to the school system serving 500,000 children across the Middle East.
Without money, the agency says it cannot accept more students, add new teachers or expand the classrooms. Peter Mulrean is with UNRWA’s New York office. He said average class sizes in the West Bank have grown from 30 students a year ago to 50.
And Jameel feels it.
“There’s a huge difference between correcting exams for 27 students and for 47 students,” he said. “I just want things to go back to how they were last year.”
Students, too, say they have felt the change.
“It’s been really hard for me to understand what’s going on in class this year,” said Suhail Jaber, a ninth-grader at the Hebron school. “If the teacher stops to explain things when we’re confused, I feel class is suddenly over and I won’t ever understand.”
Ten-year-old Ali Azazmeh said he has stopped even trying. “With all the heads in front of me I can’t see the board anyway,” he said.
The U.S. was UNRWA’s biggest donor for many years. In early 2018, the U.S. reduced the amount of aid from $360 million to $60 million. In 2019, it went down to zero.
What is the UNRWA?
UNRWA was established following the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Its aim was to aid the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes in the fighting.
Today, the agency serves about 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It provides services that local governments do not.
In a recent speech to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Mideast diplomat Jason Greenblatt said the UNRWA model “has failed the Palestinian people.”
He said, “The UNRWA model cannot provide to Palestinians what they deserve — a life where they can plan for their future and the future of their children, and one where they know whether schools and health clinics will remain open.” He called for “host governments” and other aid organizations to meet the need.
Critics in the U.S. and Israel have accused the agency of keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alive. They also say UNRWA supports a culture of welfare dependency. Instead of working to resettle the refugees, they say UNRWA permits refugee status to be passed down for generations, even when refugees have gained citizenship in some countries, such as Jordan.
UNRWA rejects the criticism, pointing out that refugees in other conflicts also keep their status. It says it is carrying out a U.N. order that represents the will of the international community. The best way to solve the Palestinian refugee problem, it says, is to find a political answer that speaks to their future.
After the U.S. cuts, European and Persian Gulf countries gave $1.2 billion to keep the schools, as well as health and food aid centers open.
Mulrean said, “When you hear that we’ve maintained our programs and reduced our deficit, what you don’t see is that the quality of our services is under threat."
Palestinians view UNRWA as support for their demand that refugees have the “right of return” to their homes in what is now Israel. Israel rejects the demand.
After the U.S. recognized the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, the Palestinians cut ties with President Donald Trump’s administration. Palestinians believe the cuts to UNRWA, along with an end to hundreds of millions of dollars in other aid, are part of a broader U.S. effort to add pressure.
Later this month, the U.S. is to present its long-awaited Mideast peace plan at an economic conference in Bahrain. The aim is to raise money from wealthy Arab nations and others for investment in the Palestinian territories.
However, Palestinian politicians have said they will not lose hope of establishing a nation in exchange for economic investment.
Without an answer to the problem, Mulrean said millions of Palestinians are suffering. He added, “It’s the most vulnerable people who pay the price.”
I’m Caty Weaver.
And I'm Jonathan Evans.
Words in This Story
confused - adj. unable to understand
host - n. a place or organization that provides things needed for a group of people
welfare - n. a government program that helps pay for food, housing and other needs
status - n. the current state of someone
maintain - v. continue having or doing something
vulnerable - adj. open to harm or damage