Israel welcomes U.S. defunding of UNRWA as step for peace

The Palestinian Authority said it could turn to the UN General Assembly and Security Council to counter the US administration’s decision.

A Palestinian man pushes a cart with bags of flour at an aid distribution center run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip September 1, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
A Palestinian man pushes a cart with bags of flour at an aid distribution center run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip September 1, 2018.
Israel welcomed the United States’ decision to cut its funding to UNRWA as a positive step forward in the peace process, while the Palestinians and the Jordanians warned it would inflame the Middle East.
“Israel supports the American move,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said on Saturday night. It explained that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s fixed determination of who is a Palestinian refugee is “one of the main problems perpetuating the conflict.”
“It is worth giving the money to other parties that will make good use of it for the welfare of the population and not for the perpetuation of the [Palestinian] refugees [status],” Netanyahu’s office said.
The Palestinian Authority said it could turn to the UN General Assembly and Security Council to counter the US administration’s decision.
A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the US decision a “flagrant assault” against the Palestinian people, and a “defiance of UN resolutions.”
Palestinian refugees angry and dismayed at U.S. for halting funds to U.N. agency, September 1, 2018 (Reuters)
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“Such a punishment will not succeed to change the fact that the United States no longer has a role in the region and that it is not a part of the solution.”
Jordan, which is home to 2.1 million Palestinian refugees serviced by UNRWA, had already begun seeking additional donor funding even in advance of the US’s announcement.
On Saturday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said, “Disruption of UNRWA services will have extremely dangerous humanitarian, political and security implications for refugees and for the whole region.”
“It will only consolidate an environment of despair that would ultimately create fertile grounds for further tension. Politically it will also further hurt the credibility of peacemaking efforts.”
Safadi said a meeting on September 27 in New York in the United Nations – which the kingdom was co-sponsoring with Japan, the European Union, Sweden and Turkey – would seek to “rally political and financial support for the agency”.
“We will do everything possible to ensure that UNRWA gets the funds it needs to continue offering its services to Palestinian refugees,” Safadi added.
Israel’s former ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who is also an MK from the Kulanu party, said: “The US government’s decision to end its aid to Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA is crucial for any future peace agreement. UNRWA eternalizes the Israeli-Arab conflict by artificially inflating the number of refugees, teaching young Palestinians to deny Israel’s right to exist and demand the right of return, while providing shelter to terrorists and concealing their weapons.”
“UNRWA is not essential to peace but rather a roadblock on the path to peace. UNRWA’s support of schools can be picked up by other charitable organizations as well as the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees,” Oren said.
“The Palestinians must recognize that the US’s decision to rescind its support of UNRWA is a result of the administration’s efforts to revive the peace process and to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. From now one, any side that leaves the negotiation table is expected to pay a price,” he added.
Right-wing Israeli and US politicians have long argued the organization created in 1948 to service Palestinian refugees had become a stumbling block to the peace process because of its decision to confer refugee status on the descendants of the more than 750,000 Palestinians who fled their homes during Israel’s War of Independence.
Until last year, the United States was the largest donor to UNRWA, contributing some $360 million of its one billion dollar budget to service over five million refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
This year, the US gave only $60m. and on Friday the Trump administration cut the funding as it questioned the organization’s “fundamental business model” of servicing an “endlessly and exponentially expanding community” of declared Palestinian refugees.
The move was previewed by US media outlets in recent weeks after e-mails from President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were leaked showing his interest in “disrupting” the UN body.
“The administration has carefully reviewed the issue and determined that the United States will not make additional contributions to UNRWA,” the State Department said in a statement. “When we made a US contribution of $60m. in January, we made it clear that the United States was no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs that we had assumed for many years.”
“Beyond the budget gap itself and failure to mobilize adequate and appropriate burden sharing, the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years – tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries – is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years,” it continued. “The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”
“It’s not up to the US administration to define the status of Palestinian refugees,” argued PLO envoy to Washington Husam Zomlot. “The only status the US can define is its own role in peacemaking in the region. By endorsing the most extreme Israeli narrative on all issues, including the rights of more than five million Palestinian refugees, the US administration has lost its status as peacemaker and is damaging not only an already volatile situation but the prospects for future peace in the Middle East.”
Opponents of the move see the US decision as a de-facto attempt to redefine who is a Palestine refugee, so as to take the right of return off the negotiating table.
A State Department official confirmed to The Jerusalem Post earlier this week that, while the administration would disapprove of UNRWA’s definition for Palestinian refugees qualifying for aid, it would not redefine nor enumerate the category.
US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined Kushner in support of the decision.
“UNRWA can stay there, and we will be a donor if it reforms what it does,” Haley told the Foundation for Defense of Democracies earlier this week. “If it goes and makes sure that they’re not doing those teachings in textbooks, if they actually change the number of refugees to an accurate account we will look back at partnering [with] them.”
The US is not empowered to shut UNRWA down nor can it define the Palestinian refugee status for the organization. Such decision can only be made by the UN General Assembly. It can, however, impact funding and work behind the scenes to eliminate the organization.
Channel 2 reported on Saturday night that it was expected to ask Israel to halt UNRWA’s ability to work in the West Bank and Gaza.
Safadi told the BBC Jordan had made it clear to the US that it would support efforts to replace UNRWA.
UNRWA commissioner-general Pierre Krahenbuhl said in response that “the funding decision of an individual member state – albeit our historically most generous and consistent donor – will not modify or impact the energy and passion with which we approach our role and responsibility towards Palestine refugees. It will only strengthen our resolve.”
He said he believed the cuts were politically motivated and related to tensions between the US and the Palestinians and was not connected to UNRWA’s performance.
“It therefore represented an evident politicization of humanitarian aid. The announcement made yesterday further challenges the notion that humanitarian funding should be depoliticized. It risks undermining the foundations of the international multi-lateral and humanitarian systems,” Krahenbuhl said.
The State Department said on Friday, “We are very mindful of and deeply concerned regarding the impact upon innocent Palestinians, especially school children, of the failure of UNRWA and key members of the regional and international donor community to reform and reset the UNRWA way of doing business.
“These children are part of the future of the Middle East. Palestinians, wherever they live, deserve better than an endlessly crisis-driven service provision model. They deserve to be able to plan for the future,” the State Department said.
In response to the US move, the German government has pledged to significantly increase UNRWA funding.
“The loss of this organization could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. “We are currently preparing to provide an additional amount of significant funds,” Maas said in a letter to European Union foreign ministers that was seen by Reuters.
Germany had already provided €81m. ($94m.) in aid for UNWRA this year, he said, and was preparing to increase its contribution. He gave no figure.
Maas said it was clear that the added German funds would not cover a $217m. deficit left by the US withdrawal, and urged the European Union and other states to work toward “a sustainable finance basis for the organization”.
The EU, which contributed €100 million to UNRWA this year and is its largest donor, pledged to continue to work with the organization to make up for the funding gap.
EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s spokesperson said, “The EU and its Member States, and many others in the international community, including many Arab states, have pledged their support to the continuity of the work that UNRWA is doing.
“EU Foreign Ministers have discussed this issue at their informal meeting in Vienna this week. We will continue to discuss it in the run-up to the UN General Assembly ministerial week, also together with our international and regional partners, how to ensure sustainable, continued and effective assistance to the Palestinians, including through UNRWA, at this difficult juncture.”
Reuters contributed to this report.