Germany to boost funding to UNRWA as US pulls back

‘Loss of this organization could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction,’ foreign minister says, calling for world support for Palestinian refugee body

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas seen prior to the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on July 18, 2018. (AP/Ferdinand Ostrop)
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas seen prior to the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on July 18, 2018. (AP/Ferdinand Ostrop)

Germany said Friday it would boost funding to the beleaguered UN agency for Palestinian refugees, and called for an international effort to sustain the aid body.

Berlin’s announcement comes amid deep US cuts to funds it provides to the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), and with reports proliferating that Washington has decided to halt support altogether. Early this year, the White House announced it was cutting its annual funding by $300 million.

“The loss of this organization could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, according to Reuters. “We are currently preparing to provide an additional amount of significant funds.”

He did not say what amount those funds would come to, though he noted it would certainly not be enough to cover the deficit left by the US pullout.

Maas urged Germany’s international partners to work together for “a sustainable finance basis for the organization.”

Jordan said Thursday it would host a fundraiser at the United Nations headquarters in New York next month to keep UNRWA afloat.

Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the meeting, set for September 27 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, “aims to provide financial and political support to UNRWA.”

The Jordanian foreign minister said the New York event aims to “close the gap and put in place a plan that will ensure UNRWA’s continued, ongoing funding for the coming years.”

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi delivers a speech during the UNRWA conference in Rome, Italy, on March 15, 2018. (AP/Andrew Medichini)

It will also “reaffirm that UNRWA is an organization created by the UN General Assembly, with a clear and particular role, and this role must continue,” Safadi added.

Speaking alongside the Jordanian foreign minister, UNRWA Director Pierre Krahenbuhl said the agency needs $200 million to continue its work until the end of this year.

“We’re talking about human beings. We cannot wish 5.3 million Palestinian refugees away… these are people who have rights and for many years now, for decades, have faced a plight and an injustice that is simply immense,” said Krahenbuhl.

The agency supports some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and provides schooling for 526,000 children in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

But UNRWA has warned it currently only has the funds to keep its 711 schools open for the next month.

By the end of September, “UNRWA won’t have a penny,” the agency’s spokesman Chris Gunness warned Wednesday.

The agency was created in 1949 to support 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the war surrounding the creation of Israel. Several tens of thousands of them still alive today, along with their millions of descendants, are classified as refugees.

UNRWA head Pierre Krahenbuhl during an interview with The Associated Press in Jerusalem, August 23, 2018. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by, uniquely, granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged that funding for Palestinian refugees be maintained, but not through UNRWA. Rather, he has called for it to be transferred through the UN’s main refugee body, UNHCR.

Israel has often criticized UNRWA, accusing it of sheltering terrorists and allowing Palestinians to remain refugees even after settling in a new city or country for many generations, thus complicating a possible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Thursday night, The Washington Post reported that Washington has made a final decision to halt all aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and will announce the move in the next few weeks.

The Post added that the decision also included a previously reported plan to remove the refugee status from millions of Palestinians around the world — recognizing only several hundred thousand instead of the 5 million claimed by the Palestinians.

Palestinian children stand next to bags of food aid provided by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on January 24, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

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. 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.

The Post’s report appeared to corroborate another by Foreign Policy Tuesday, according to which a decision to cut all aid to UNRWA was made at a meeting earlier this month between US President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Since then, the administration has informed “key regional governments” of its plan, the report said.

The Foreign Policy report came hours after State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that aid money to the Palestinian Authority “does not provide value to the US taxpayer,” following a White House announcement that it planned to slash more than $200 million in overall aid to Ramallah.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the apparent decision, according to Foreign Policy, but said that “US policy regarding UNRWA has been under frequent evaluation and internal discussion.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on July 25, 2018. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

The $200-million aid cut announced last Friday is the ostensible result of a review of US assistance to the PA that Trump ordered in January, following the Palestinians’ decision to shun the administration over Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US Embassy to the city.

Sources in the Israeli defense establishment fear that Washington’s apparent efforts to weaken UNRWA may strengthen the Hamas terror group in Gaza and endanger Israel’s security.

They say that serious cuts to UNRWA’s budget would create a vacuum in the provision of basic services in the Strip, where the majority of residents are dependent on the organization. This would be particularly felt in food shortages and a breakdown of education, which Hamas could use to strengthen its grip on the coastal enclave.

Agencies and Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.

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