American ex-UN envoys urge restoration of Palestinian refugee funds

Former ambassadors say cuts to UNRWA could have ‘national security ramifications’ for US allies, such as Israel

Palestinian refugees collect aid parcels at a United Nations food distribution center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 21, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Palestinian refugees collect aid parcels at a United Nations food distribution center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 21, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Seven former American ambassadors to the United Nations called on the Trump administration Monday to restore funding to the UN agency that helps Palestinian refugees and their descendants across the Middle East.

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the ex-envoys from both Republican and Democratic administrations said that withholding funds from the UN Relief and Works Agency will have national security implications for US partners in the region, including Israel and Jordan.

The agency is facing a major budget shortfall due in part to the suspension of US assistance. The UN says UNRWA needs $250 million, without which it will be forced to severely curtail programs to provide basic services — from food assistance and medical care to sanitation — for 5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

“This financial gap puts into question the ability of UNRWA to continue to deliver education and health care services to millions of people, and has national security ramifications for our closest allies, including Israel and Jordan,” the former ambassadors said in the letter, which was also sent to the current US envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

“We urge you to restore US funding to help fill this gap,” said the envoys, who include Thomas Pickering and Edward Perkins, who served under president George H.W. Bush; Madeleine Albright and Bill Richardson, who served under president Bill Clinton; John Negroponte, who served under president George W. Bush; and Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who served under president Barack Obama.

Palestinian children hold pita breads during a protest against aid cuts, outside the United Nations’ offices in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The US has historically been the top donor to the agency, and last year provided $364 million. But earlier this year, the Trump administration announced that it was withholding more than half its initial installment of $125 million. The rest of that, along with additional payments, are on hold until the agency implements structural reforms.

UNWRA director Pierre Krahenbuhl said at an emergency donors’ conference last week that the US cuts along with other shortfalls are endangering food assistance in Gaza and medical clinics spread among the five areas, while about 500,000 children may not be able to start the school year.

The agency was created after the war that followed the birth of Israel in 1948, with about 700,000 Palestinians living there either fleeing or being forced from their homes. UNRWA now faces its worst crisis in nearly seven decades, according to Krahenbuhl.

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year, even as other refugee populations in the world shrink with each passing generation.

UNRWA counters that it is caring for a population that is scattered in several countries in the region, but is not served either by Israel or those countries, which refuse to grant most of them or their descendants citizenship, and that its definition of refugees reflects that reality.

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