Arab League: US cutting UNRWA funds to erase Palestinian refugees

Decision to withhold $65 million from UN agency ‘aims to eradicate’ the issue, says organization’s chief Aboul Gheit

A Palestinian man near the UNRWA relief and social program office in Gaza City on January 8, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
A Palestinian man near the UNRWA relief and social program office in Gaza City on January 8, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

The Arab League chief charged Wednesday that a US decision to freeze crucial funding for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees was aimed at wiping out the whole issue of Palestinian refugees.

“This decision affects the education and health of Palestinians and aims to eradicate the question of refugees,” Ahmed Aboul Gheit said at a conference in Cairo on the disputed city of Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, the United States held back $65 million that had been destined for UNRWA, two weeks after President Donald Trump threatened future payments to the agency.

Washington is the largest contributor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

Secretary-General of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul Gheit attends the Arab Foreign Minister’s meeting in Cairo to discuss the simmering unrest in Jerusalem on July 27, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI)

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness warned Wednesday that “this dramatically reduced contribution results in the most severe funding crisis in the history of the agency.”

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the freeze amounted to “cruelty” toward an “innocent and vulnerable population.”

The Palestinian envoy to Washington, Husam Zomlot, said, “Palestinian refugees and children’s access to basic humanitarian services, such as food, health care and education, is not a bargaining chip but a US and international obligation.”

The UN’s aid agency for Palestinian refugees announced Wednesday the launch of an international fundraising campaign to make up the budget shortfall caused by the US decision.

In a statement, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krahenbuhl, warned that “this reduced contribution threatens one of the most successful and innovative human development endeavors in the Middle East.”

Pierre Krahenbuhl, director of the UN agency that supports Palestinians, during an interview in Beirut, Lebanon, March 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the move to reporters during his state visit to India, as “the first time that there is a challenge to UNRWA, after 70 years.

“The agency that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and narrative of erasing Zionism — and this is the first time this thing is challenged. It’s a good thing that they’re moving forward and challenging this body.”

Netanyahu has urged that funding for Palestinian refugees be maintained, but not through UNRWA. Rather, he has called for it to be transferred through the UN’s main refugee body, UNHCR.

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.

A Palestinian refugee living in Syria receives medication at an UNRWA clinic. (Courtesy UNRWA/Taghrid Mohammad)

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.

The $65 million that the US State Department has withheld forms part of the $120 million it planned to contribute to UNRWA this month, one of several payments to the agency slated for 2018.

The US has told UNRWA that future US donations will be contingent on major changes by the organization.

“We would like to see some reforms be made,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, adding that changes were needed in the way the agency operates and is funded. “This is not aimed at punishing anyone,” Nauert said, adding that the US believes there needs to be more “burden-sharing,” a regular complaint by Trump about multilateral organizations dependent on significant contributions of US cash.

In this 1968 photo, Palestinian refugees have just arrived in Jordan as part of a continuing exodus of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.(AP/G.Nehmeh/UNRWA Photo Archives)

The agency was established following the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, in which more than 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were forced from their homes.

UNRWA provides aid for those people and their descendants, now numbering around five million Palestinians across the Middle East.

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