Fearing collapse amid UNRWA cuts, Israeli officials urge aid for Gaza

With US defunding the UN's Palestinian aid agency over its expansive definition of a refugee, Israel fears humanitarian crisis could spark war in south

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)

Israeli security officials are urging the government to find an alternative source of aid funding for the Palestinians in Gaza as US contributions to the UN’s Palestinian aid agency UNRWA have evaporated.

On August 31, the US announced it would end all funding to UNRWA, just a week after cutting some $200 million in aid for the West Bank and Gaza. None of the cuts directly targeted aid meant for the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which received some $42 million in July as frozen funds were released that went toward security cooperation with Israel.

Though hailed by Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the cuts are said to be opposed by defense officials, who fear they could fuel Palestinian unrest and in turn jeopardize Israel’s security.

In recent days, Israeli security officials have told the political leadership that they fear the withdrawal of that aid – as well as US efforts to limit other nations’ contributions to the UN agency – could lead to a humanitarian collapse in Gaza, and eventually to war as the territory’s Hamas rulers look to push blame for its beleaguered condition onto external enemies, the Haaretz daily reported Friday.

Gaza is under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that the two countries say is meant to prevent Hamas, an Islamist terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, from expanding its military capabilities and threatening its neighbors. But Israeli officials have sought over the years to ensure that the blockade contains Hamas without causing a humanitarian collapse that could trigger bloodshed.

File: A worker readies a shipment of relief aid to Gaza at the warehouses of the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization in Amman, January 22, 2009, in this UNRWA photo. (AP Photo/Mohammad Abu Ghosh)

Senior Israeli officials, including Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and the top IDF liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, are expected to attend an UNRWA donor nation conference in late September in New York. According to Haaretz, they plan to urge the establishment of a parallel channel for foreign aid to Gaza that will allow continued funding of food aid, operation of UNRWA schools in the enclave and the payment of salaries to the organization’s estimated 30,000 employees while still sidelining the organization.

Security officials say that UNRWA’s funding for its main Gaza programs, including food deliveries and schools, is assured through the end of 2018, but that a broad collapse could ensue if funding isn’t found for those activities for 2019.

In its announcement of the cuts to UNRWA last month, the US State Department castigated the agency for what it called “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 the US, the largest funder of UNRWA, would “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 statement said, a reference to the fact that the agency grants refugee status to all the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees, something not granted by the UN to refugees from other conflicts and locations.

Pupils gather in front of a school run by the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA in Gaza City on August 29, 2018, on the first day of classes after the summer holidays. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

However, the statement said, the US would look for other ways to aid the Palestinians.

“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.”

In a phone call Thursday with Jewish leaders ahead of Rosh Hashanah, US President Donald Trump seemed to up the ante, saying he would only resume aid to the Palestinians if they agree to a deal with Israel.

“I stopped massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians and the Palestinian leaders. We were — the United States was paying them tremendous amounts of money,” he said during the call. “And I’d say, you’ll get money, but we’re not paying you until we make a deal. If we don’t make a deal, we’re not paying. And that’s going to have a little impact.

“I don’t think it’s disrespectful at all” for US aid to be utilized as a bargaining chip, the president added. Rather, “I think it’s disrespectful when people don’t come to the table.”

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)

The PA has boycotted the Trump administration and rebuffed its peace efforts since the US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December of last year. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem — which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed — as the capital of their future state.

On Friday, the State Department announced yet another cut, saying it will halt $25 million in aid to East Jerusalem hospitals, leading to warnings of the “collapse” of medical centers that provide crucial care to Palestinians.

The fresh cuts mark the third week in a row the US has slashed financial support for the Palestinians.

Israel has long viewed UNRWA as a bitter but necessary pill, a vital source of international aid for the Palestinians that contributes to stability, but at the same time an agency that reflects and bolsters one of the root causes of the conflict with the Palestinians. While backing UNRWA’s humanitarian contribution, Israel has said its definition of refugees has served as de facto international recognition, at least in Palestinian eyes, for the aspiration to reverse the results of that war – namely, Israel’s founding.

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