Days after resuming US funding for the troubled UN agency that administers to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, the Biden administration says it has the commitment of UNRWA to “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism, racism or discrimination.
“UNWRA has made clear their rock-solid commitments to the United States on the issues of transparency, accountability, and neutrality in all its operations,” a senior US official said in an interview this weekend, describing the process that led last week to the administration announcing the resumption of funding for the agency. “And what neutrality means in the context of the United Nations is zero tolerance for racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism.”
The official said the resumption of aid was consistent with a Biden administration policy of favoring a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
A UNRWA spokesman did not reply by late Monday afternoon to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency request seeking comment.
UNRWA has been plagued for years by reports of mismanagement and of anti-Semitic content in the textbooks used by the agency in the school it administers.
The Biden administration official, who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly, reached out to JTA. The call was consistent with what has become a Biden administration practice: rolling back Trump administration policies that Israel favored, but leavening the change with pledges and actions that reassure Israel of US support. A similar dynamic is playing out in the administration’s bid to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.
President Donald Trump ended assistance to UNRWA in 2018. Trump administration officials said the agency’s precept — treating millions of Palestinians as refugees — perpetuated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That was the claim by Israel’s US ambassador, Gilad Erdan, in a highly unusual rebuke of the Biden administration when the $150 million in assistance was announced.
Biden campaigned on refunding UNRWA — on humanitarian grounds and to restore American influence in the region.
In January, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, a watchdog, reported that UNRWA textbooks were “rife with problematic content that contradicts stated UN values.”
The Biden official said the US government is “completely committed to ensuring that US assistance to the Palestinians through UNRWA, like all other US assistance, is delivered consistent with the principles of transparency, accountability, efficiency, effectiveness and neutrality.”
The official rejected the precept that designating the descendants of Palestinian refugees as refugees perpetuated the conflict. The refugee problem would be addressed in a two-state solution, the official said, which was the end goal of the Biden administration.
Israel, which had held off on criticism of Biden in his first months, denounced the assistance to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, which provides housing, schools and other care to more than six million Palestinians.
“We believe that this UN agency for so-called ‘refugees’ should not exist in its current format,” said Erdan.
Israel argues that the education provided by the UN-backed schools includes incitement against the Jewish state.
“I have expressed my disappointment and objection to the decision to renew UNRWA’s funding without first ensuring that certain reforms, including stopping the incitement and removing anti-Semitic content from its educational curriculum, are carried out,” Erdan said.
Israel, however, has long pushed for UNRWA’s closure, arguing that it helps perpetuate the conflict with the Palestinians since it confers refugee status upon descendants of those originally displaced around the time of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.