Closing UNRWA won’t remove Palestinian refugee problem, says agency chief

Pierre Krahenbuhl worries US wants to take refugee issue off negotiating table, praises donor countries who increased funding for aid organization after American cuts

Head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Pierre Krahenbuhl, speaks with a reporter during an interview with AP on September 27, 2018, in New York. (AP/Andres Kudacki)
Head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Pierre Krahenbuhl, speaks with a reporter during an interview with AP on September 27, 2018, in New York. (AP/Andres Kudacki)

UNITED NATIONS — Facing a financial crisis after the United States cut funding, the head of the UN agency that helps 5.3 million Palestinian refugees says the problem of their well-being will continue to exist whether there’s money or not — and especially if his organization is forced to shut down.

While the UN Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, got some good news Wednesday with new pledges of $118 million, it remains $68 million in the hole this year. And in January it will face the problem of trying to find funding for next year’s budget of about $1.2 billion.

“Of course, we worry about it,” UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl said. “The key question for next year will be whether these countries that have shown themselves so generous in supporting us this year … are they prepared to sustain those contributions?”

As Krahenbuhl sat down for an interview with The Associated Press about the agency’s future on Thursday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told the UN General Assembly that UNRWA is critical to millions of his people but US officials “just want to obliterate it altogether.”

UNRWA was established after the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948 to aid the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes. Today, it provides education, health care and social services to 5.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Refugee schoolchildren attend an official ceremony to return to school at one of the UNRWA schools at a Palestinian refugee camp Al-Wehdat, in Amman, Jordan, September 2, 2018. (AP Photo / Raad Adayleh)

Krahenbuhl said the sudden US funding cut of $300 million early this year and the August 31 announcement by the Trump administration that it was ending decades of funding for UNRWA were “a matter of deep regret and sincere disappointment” since the US was historically the agency’s largest donor, paying nearly 30 percent of its budget.

“But it’s a disappointment also because the decision was taken for political reasons,” he said. “It’s not in relation to our performance, and that makes it very difficult for a humanitarian organization because for political reasons we’re related and adjusted to the tensions between the US and the Palestinian leadership.”

“It’s very important to protect humanitarian funding from these forms of politicization,” Krahenbuhl stressed.

In announcing the end to funding, the US called UNRWA an “irredeemably flawed operation.” The Trump administration’s top Mideast adviser, Jared Kushner, went further in an internal email published by Foreign Policy magazine. He was quoted as calling for a “sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA” and saying the agency “perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”

Israel, which praised the end of US funding, accuses UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by teaching hatred of Israel in its classrooms and tolerating or assisting Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza. But Israel’s chief complaint is linked to UNRWA’s definition of who qualifies as a Palestinian refugee. Under UNRWA rules, any descendant of a Palestinian or fled or was expelled in the 1948 war counts as a refugee, even if they become citizens of other countries. Those rules are different from the UN Refugee Agency rules applied to all other refugee populations worldwide, which view those who are resettled and naturalized in other nations as no longer refugees.

Israeli officials have noted that while the UN Refugee Agency’s definition means refugee populations dwindle over time, UNRWA’s definition means the population classified as Palestinian refugees by the UN will grow in perpetuity. Israel says the UNRWA definition is intended to bolster a Palestinian narrative that rejects Israel’s right to exist and ultimately seeks to eradicate and supplant it.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called UNRWA “an organization that instead of solving the Palestinian refugee problem, perpetuates it.” It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of original Palestinian refugees from 1948 still alive; UNRWA recognizes 5.4 million Palestinian refugees. Under the UN’s global criteria, millions of them would not be considered refugees.

UNRWA has argued in response that it takes its cue on defining refugees from the Palestinians themselves, that for millions of Palestinians living in Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere, there are no paths available to them to naturalization in another country because of those nations’ policies, and that therefore including them under UNRWA’s humanitarian umbrella is a necessity born of circumstances beyond UNRWA’s control.

Krahenbuhl, for his part, rejected Thursday the allegations of corruption and inefficiency, touting the quality of UNRWA schools and saying it was a touch-and-go decision to open them for the new school term that started in August.

“The fact that donors came forward — Gulf countries, Asia, Europe, Canada and others, helped us and allowed us to open the school year,” he said.

Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory School in Gaza City, January 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Krahenbuhl said “the most remarkable” funding increases have come from Gulf countries — Qatar increasing its contribution to UNRWA from $1 million to $50 million in March, a figure matched soon after by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He said other countries have also increased contributions including India from $1 million to $5 million as well as China, Japan, Britain, Germany, Sweden and some European Union countries.

At a UN event Thursday hosted by UNRWA and Jordan, diplomats said Kuwait pledged $42 million and the European Union pledged 40 million euros to help Palestinian refugees this year.

The Palestinians fear the US is putting pressure on host countries to absorb their refugee populations and eliminate the issue from future peace negotiations. Kushner and Jason Greenblatt are preparing a highly anticipated peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. US President Donald Trump said Wednesday for the first time that the United States supports a two-state solution.

Krahenbuhl reiterated that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly supports a two-state solution and has said there is “no Plan B.” He stressed that a peace deal “has to be inclusive of the concerns and aspirations of Palestinian refugees.”

A Palestinian woman sits with a child after receiving food supplies from the United Nations’ offices at the United Nations’ offices in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, February 11, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Krahenbuhl said the UN General Assembly, where UNRWA’s mandate originated, states clearly that refugees and the children, grandchildren and descendants are recognized as refugees. He noted that the UN refugee agency has the same definition — though the latter includes requirements related to the actual legal and humanitarian conditions of those descendants.

“It is not for an individual member state to modify that or to suddenly suggest unilaterally that there is a change in numbers,” he said.

As for those who would like to see UNRWA disappear, Krahenbuhl said: “At the end of the day, whether UNRWA exists or not is not the core question.”

That question is: “Is the international community prepared to bring about a political solution that is at the heart of the continued existence of this refugee community 70 years after” the 1948 war, he asked.

“I’m certain the Palestinian refugees would like nothing more than a horizon that opens and tells them something different can be achieved with an independent state of their own,” he said.

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