Brussels calls US move 'regrettable,' promises ongoing help

EU urges US to reconsider its defunding of UNRWA, but also calls for reform

Europe says it will continue to support UN’s Palestinian refugee aid agency, but says it requires ‘transformative process’; Jordan warns of ‘extremely dangerous implications’

Palestinians collect food aid at a United Nations food distribution center in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Palestinians collect food aid at a United Nations food distribution center in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The European Union on Saturday said the US decision to end decades of funding to the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees and their descendants was “regrettable,” and vowed to continue funding the agency.

“The regrettable decision of the US to no longer be part of this international and multilateral effort leaves a substantial gap and we hope that the US can reconsider their decision,” it said in a statement.

It also urged UNRWA to reform its operations, however, and “engage in a transformative process.” It did not elaborate on what this process might involve.

EU Foreign Ministers and their international and regional partners, it said in the statement, would now hold discussions on “how to ensure sustainable, continued and effective assistance to the Palestinians, including through UNRWA, at this difficult juncture.”

At the same time, the EU called for ongoing reform at UNRWA, the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. “UNRWA has recently expanded its donor base and taken internal management measures to increase efficiencies and reduce costs,” the statement said. “UNRWA should pursue these reforms and further engage in a transformative process. The EU is committed to continue discussing these matters with UNRWA so as to secure the continuation and sustainability of the agency’s work which is vital for stability and security in the region.”

The EU noted that UNRWA “runs schools for over 500,000 Palestine refugee children,” and other essential services. While the US was the biggest single donor to UNRWA, the statement noted that “the EU and its Member States are collectively the largest contributors to UNRWA’s budget.”

“Education is a fundamental part of the development of a viable Palestinian state, as are also hospitals and other basic services to which UNRWA’s activities make an essential contribution,” the EU said. “Our collective efforts, in the international community, to provide humanitarian and development assistance to Palestinians, in particular the younger generation, are inseparable part of our efforts to reach a negotiated two-state solution and a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

The issue of the Palestinian refugees, it indicated, should be resolved between Israel and the Palestinians. “The EU will continue its assistance to the Palestinians, including its support to UNRWA’s activities, while we will also continue our efforts to reach a two-state solution – a solution that will include the issue of refugees, which is a final status issue that only the two parties can resolve through negotiations, with the support of the international community,” it said.

Meanwhile Jordan’s Foreign Minster Ayman Safadi told Reuters his nation will do everything to keep the organization running despite the US cuts.

“Disruption of UNRWA services will have extremely dangerous humanitarian, political and security implications for refugees and for the whole region,” Safadi said.

“It will only consolidate an environment of despair that would ultimately create fertile grounds for further tension. Politically it will also further hurt the credibility of peacemaking efforts.”

Jordan is home to around 2 million people designated as Palestinian refugees.

Washington, which until last year was by far the biggest contributor to UNRWA, announced on Friday that it would no longer make any contributions to the “irredeemably flawed operation.” The Trump administration decision cuts nearly $300 million of planned US support for UNRWA this year alone.

The Trump administration castigated UNRWA for failed practices, and indicated that it rejected the criteria by which UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees, whereby the UN agency confers refugee status not only on original refugees but on their millions of descendants.

The State Department said in a statement that the US would look for other ways to aid the Palestinians.

Palestinian schoolgirls pose for a group picture outside their classrooms at a school belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City on January 22, 2018, during a visit by the UNRWA Commissioner General. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

“We are very mindful of and deeply concerned regarding the impact upon innocent Palestinians, especially school children, of the failure of UNRWA and key members of the regional and international donor community to reform and reset the UNRWA way of doing business,” it said, adding that “Palestinians, wherever they live, deserve better than an endlessly crisis-driven service provision model. They deserve to be able to plan for the future.”

Ahead of Friday’s announcement, Israel had signaled its support for the move.

“Israel supports the move because UNWRA is one of the main problems perpetuating the conflict,” Hadashot news quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office as saying on Friday evening.

The PMO reiterated its support for the US decision on Saturday evening.

The Palestinians claim that 5 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 9 million, some three-quarters of whom are Jewish. An influx of millions would mean Israel could no longer be a Jewish-majority state.

Palestinians blasted the US for the defunding move, saying the slashed funds by the Trump administration would strengthen terror groups.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeneh said the move “does not serve peace but rather strengthens terrorism in the region,” and was just the latest hostile act of the Trump Administration against the Palestinian people, after it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there. He said the Palestinian leadership was considering appealing to the UN Security Council to confront the American stance.

“This decision, which violates all resolutions of international legitimacy, requires the United Nations to take a firm stand against the U.S. decision and to take appropriate decisions,” he said. “Whatever the size of the conspiracies aimed at liquidating the Palestinian cause, this will only increase the steadfastness of the Palestinian people and its leadership.”

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