UNRWA and the Trump administration will go head-to-head on June 25 when they both hold separate economic conferences for the Palestinians, in a scenario likely to deepen the growing divide between them.
“UNRWA is currently running on fumes,” charged US special envoy Jason Greenblatt on Wednesday, at a special appearance at the UN Security Council, “surviving on a surge in foreign donations in 2018 that is unlikely to be sustained this year, or in the future.”
Greenblatt spoke after a briefing by UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl, who warned that his organization, which services more than five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants, was in danger of running out of humanitarian funds by mid-June.
Greenblatt urged the international community to stop supporting the UN Relief and Works Agency, and to get on board with the US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, the initial portion of which will be unveiled in Manama, Bahrain, on June 25-26.
“I cannot but help point out the irony that at the time of our conference in Bahrain, which can pave the way to prosperity for Palestinians, UNRWA is hosting a pledging conference for a broken system,” Greenblatt said.
According to The New York Times, the US is looking to raise $68 billion for its economic plan. UNRWA, in contrast, is looking to ensure that it can meet its $1.2 billion budget for 2019 by holding a pledging conference in New York. It’s a task made more difficult by the US decision last year to halt its annual $350 million contribution to UNRWA.
On Wednesday, Greenblatt said the time had come to shut down UNRWA. “We need to engage with host governments to start a conversation about planning the transition of UNRWA services to host governments, or to other international or local non-governmental organizations, as appropriate," Greenblatt said.
“Next month, in Bahrain, we and many others will participate in an economic workshop on an alternative path with the potential to unlock a prosperous future for the Palestinians. This is the first stage of a process,” he said, that will showcase “how, if we can achieve a political solution to the conflict, we can also transform the lives of the Palestinians.”
It is time to “face the reality that the UNRWA model has failed the Palestinian people,” he added.
Greenblatt took issue with UNRWA’s refugee definition, which allows for the descendants of Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 and 1967 wars to be considered refugees.
That definition creates an unsustainable aid model “which is inherently tied to an endlessly and exponentially expanding community of beneficiaries,” and a result “is in permanent crisis mode,” Greenblatt said.
“UNRWA is a Band-Aid, and the Palestinians who use its services deserve better – much better. We do not have to wait until a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in place to address that fact,” Greenblatt said.
“Palestinians have been held hostage for too long to UN resolutions, regional politics, donor fatigue, and weak leadership. It has been 70 years – three generations of Palestinians – who have suffered tremendously," Greenblatt said.
United Nations Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon also questioned UNRWA's refugee definition.
“What began as 750,000 Palestinian refugees has now turned into over 5 million, simply because of UNRWA. By manipulating the scale of the Palestinian refugee problem, UNRWA plays a direct and biased role in the politics of the conflict,” Danon said.
“Let me ask you: why is it that a Palestinian who was born in Ramallah and lived there his entire life – why is he considered a refugee? How come? But that is the case,” Danon said.
The Israeli ambassador warned that an ever growing Palestinian refugee population prohibited the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict given the Palestinian Authority’s demand of a right-of-return to sovereign Israel for those refugees. It would be impossible for Israel to maintain its identity as a Jewish state in such a scenario, he said.
"Had the original 750,000 refugees been resettled in 1949, the Palestinian refugee crisis, and thereby, their illegitimate claim of return, would not exist. But today, approximately 5.4 million so-called refugees still hold onto the hope to return to houses in which they never lived. That hope, if realized, would erase the State of Israel – simply by sheer numbers," Danon said.
He asked Krähenbühl what UNRWA’s goals were. “UNRWA, like any organization, must have clear goals,” Danon said. “What are those goals? How long will it take to reach them? And how much will it cost?”
Many of the 15 UNSC member states spoke in support of UNRWA, with German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen quizzing Greenblatt as to why he thought it was productive to shut down the UNRWA schools.
“Who does the US delegation believe will teach the 200,000 and more students in Gaza who would no longer get UNRWA schooling if the funding is not there. .. I am afraid that it would be Hamas and others that would teach the children,” Heusgen said.
Krähenbühl said that the US and Israel had mischaracterized his organization’s definition of refugees, noting that it was the same standard used by the UN for all refugees in situations of protracted conflict.
“I reject the accompanying narrative and the suggestions that the UNRWA model is irredeemably flawed,” he said.
Krähenbühl accused the US of deflecting attention onto his organization rather than focusing on resolving the conflict, noting UNRWA was not responsible for the failure to resolve the conflict.
“Making a humanitarian organization responsible for the [Israeli-Palestinian] crisis is misguided and unhelpful,” he said. “It is clear that the responsibility for the protracted nature of refugee [status]... lies squarely with the parties themselves and the international community, and the lack of will and/or utter inability of the political actors to bring about a solution to this long-standing crisis.”
Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour was not at the meeting. In his place, Palestinian Deputy Ambassador Feda Abdelhady-Nasse addressed the UNSC.
UNRWA provides life saving assistance to Palestinian refugees ensuring education, sustenance, stability and hope, Abdelhady-Nasse said.
"We completely reject attacks against UNRWA and its programs,” Abdelhady-Nasse added. “Attempts to characterize the agency as part of the problem .. are cynical, unfair and rejected not only by us, but by the vast majority of states that continue to support UNRWA's mandate," she said.
There is global consensus in support of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines and relevant UN resolutions, Abdelhady-Nasse said. The US, she charged, has disregarded, contradicted and completely undermined the pillars of that consensus.
"No one can deny that we are in need of new efforts and new energy to overcome the suffocating political deadlock least of all us,” Abdelhady-Nasse said.
She spoke against the Trump peace plan, which is expected to ignore past peace making efforts, including the pre-1967 lines, and is not expected to recognize full Palestinian sovereignty.
“New can not mean trampling the law or mocking or discarding the long standing international consensus,” she said.
A resolution to the conflict must include an end to the occupation and an independent viable and sovereign Palestinian state, Abdelhady-Nasse said.
"We cannot accept to merely improve the lives of the Palestinian people, while this illegal occupation continues," Abdelhady-Nasse said. "Nor have the "Palestinian people endured decades of suffering and waited nearly a century for freedom to resign themselves to limited autonomy," she said.
"The vision that will offer Palestinians new opportunities is one in which independence is the centerpiece. What they need is self-determination and control over their land, not endless international aid," Abdelhady-Nasse said.
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