WASHINGTON — US Jews were split Friday night over the Trump administration’s decision to cut all funding to the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency hours earlier, with left-leaning Jewish organizations calling UNRWA “deeply flawed” but arguing that stripping it of aid would endanger Israel and destabilize the region.
Right-wing Jewish groups, meanwhile, applauded the move, reciting criticisms often voiced by the Israeli government that the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) prolongs the conflict by increasing the number of recognized Palestinian refugees every year.
Speculation had been bubbling all week, after Foreign Policy reported on Tuesday that Washington was preparing to end all its funding to UNRWA — which provides humanitarian aid to more than 5 million Palestinians — as part of a wider administration effort to bring the Palestinian leadership back to the negotiating table.
The liberal Middle East advocacy group J Street excoriated the defunding decision, saying it would weaken PA President Mahmoud Abbas and make it more difficult for him enter formalized peace talks.
“This decision continues the administration’s disturbing pattern of actions that ignore the recommendations of US and Israeli intelligence and military leaders and appear designed to exacerbate suffering among the Palestinian people and marginalize the Palestinian Authority leadership,” the organization’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in a statement, adding that it was “recklessly endangering the security of Israel and countries across the region.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein also suggested that pulling the aid would hurt Israel by undercutting the PA and materially harming the quality of Palestinian life.
“Further impoverishing Palestinians only empowers extremists, undermines the P.A. and harms Israel’s security,” the California Democrat said. “Completely cutting off funding to UNRWA is inhumane and undermines our own interests in the region.”
Further impoverishing Palestinians only empowers extremists, undermines the P.A. and harms Israel’s security. Completely cutting off funding to UNRWA is inhumane and undermines our own interests in the region. https://t.co/ECx9MoGUL5
— Sen Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) August 31, 2018
Meanwhile, the Republican Jewish Coalition lauded the move.
“The Trump administration made the correct call on a very difficult decision today,” the group said. “Ultimately, UNRWA is no longer viable because it continues to expand the number of beneficiaries at an unsustainable pace.”
Striking more of a middle ground, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it saw the UN agency as problematic and believed that the US government should find other ways to contributed to humanitarian aid in the West Bank and Gaza.
“AIPAC has long been concerned that UNRWA has prolonged rather than helped to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem,” AIPAC Spokesman Marshall Wittman told The Times of Israel. “We agree with Congress and the administration that humanitarian and economic aid should be delivered in a way that serves the interest of peace and does not further prolong the conflict.”
Earlier Friday, the Trump administration announced the explosive news that it would halt all aid to UNRWA, with the State Department saying in a statement that the United States “will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”
“The fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years – tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries – is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years,” the State Department said, referencing the fact that the agency grants refugee status to all the descendants of those originally displaced between 1947 to 1948, something not granted by the UN to refugees from anywhere else in the world.
The US added that it would look for other ways to assist the Palestinians.
The US supplies nearly 30 percent of the total budget of the UNRWA, which provides health care, education, and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
The US donated $355 million to the agency in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution this year. In January the Trump administration released $60 million in funds but withheld a further $65 million it had been due to provide.
Ahead of the announcement, Israel signaled its support for the move.
“Israel supports the move because UNWRA is one of the main problems perpetuating the conflict,” Hadashot TV news quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office as saying on Friday evening.
The latest announcement also comes one week after the Trump administration slashed aid to the PA by more than $200 million, the ostensible result of a review of US assistance to the Palestinian Authority following Palestinian outrage over Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there.
In January, the White House announced it would withhold $65 million in assistance to UNRWA.
What’s more, on Tuesday, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Tuesday questioned Palestinian claims to a “right of return” to Israel, saying she believed that the hot button issue should be taken “off the table.”
Reports over the last week had stated that the administration was preparing to remove the refugee status from millions of Palestinians around the world — recognizing only several hundred thousand instead of the five million claimed by Palestinians.
Stopping short of that on Friday, the State Department made no explicit mention of the “right of return” but criticized “UNWRA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”
The “right of return” is one of the key core issues of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim that five million people — tens of thousands of original refugees from what is today’s Israel, and their millions of descendants — have a “right of return.” Israel rejects the demand, saying that it represents a bid by the Palestinians to destroy Israel by weight of numbers.
It says there is no justification for UNRWA’s unique criteria, by which all subsequent generations of descendants of the original refugees are also designated as having refugee status, including those born elsewhere and/or holding citizenship elsewhere; such a designation does not apply to the world’s other refugee populations.
Israel’s population is almost nine million, some three-quarters of whom are Jewish. An influx of millions would mean Israel could no longer be a Jewish-majority state.
In the past, Netanyahu has called in the past for UNRWA to be “dismantled.”
Last July, he accused the agency of inciting against Israel while doing nothing to help the plight of Palestinian refugees, asking why Palestinians needed a specific UN body when the UN High Commission for Refugees has helped tens of millions of displaced persons since World War II. “The time has come to dismantle UNRWA and have its parts integrated into the UN High Commission for Refugees,” he said, accusing the body of “perpetuating” the plight of Palestinian refugees.
The Israel Policy Forum, which supports a two-state solution to the conflict, called UNRWA “a deeply flawed organization,” but noted it was also responsible for the education, healthcare, and social services of millions of Palestinians in 59 refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.”
Removing all US funding, the group said, could result in the agency’s collapse and become a security nightmare for Israel.
“There is no other organization that can step in overnight and assume all of UNRWA’s responsibilities, and overseeing UNRWA’s death without a backup plan in place is grossly irresponsible,” it said.
“A long-term replacement is required due to UNRWA’s role in perpetuating the unique status of Palestinian refugeehood that never ceases irrespective of individual circumstances and its historical unwillingness to combat terrorism operated by third parties out of its facilities. ”
IPF said the US should fully fund the UN agency for five years while a replacement institution is established and responsibilities transferred.