Israeli defense officials said to fear UNRWA cuts may strengthen Hamas
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Israeli defense officials said to fear UNRWA cuts may strengthen Hamas

Concerns follow report US plans to further hamper operations of UN agency for Palestinian refugees

Refugees protest against the US for withholding $65 million from Palestinian aid programs, in front of the UNRWA offices in the Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, January 17, 2018.  (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Refugees protest against the US for withholding $65 million from Palestinian aid programs, in front of the UNRWA offices in the Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, January 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Sources in the defense establishment fear that Washington’s apparent efforts to weaken the United Nations organization that deals with Palestinian refugees may strengthen the Hamas terror group in Gaza and endanger Israel’s security, a Sunday report claimed.

Sources told Haaretz that a serious cut to the budget of the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) 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.

The concern follows a Friday announcement that the US had decided to slash more than $200 million in aid to the Palestinians amid cuts to its funding for UNRWA.

According to a Hadashot TV report, the US is planning to challenge UNRWA’s figures on the number of Palestinian refugees, rejecting its definition of refugees’ descendants as refugees themselves. It will also reportedly ask Israel to “reconsider” the mandate it gives UNRWA to operate in the West Bank. The goal of such a change, the TV report said, would be to prevent Arab nations from legitimately channeling aid to UNRWA in the West Bank.

Furthermore, the Trump administration is reportedly to announce in the next few days that it rejects the longstanding Palestinian demand for a “right of return” for million of refugees and their descendants to Israel. The US will announce a policy that, “from its point of view, essentially cancels the ‘right of return,'” the report said.

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 nine million, some three-quarters of whom are Jewish. An influx of millions would mean Israel could no longer be a Jewish-majority state.

According to the TV report Saturday, the US in early September will set out its policy on the issue. It will produce a report that says there are actually only some half a million Palestinians who should be legitimately considered refugees, and make plain that it rejects the UN designation under which the millions of descendants of the original refugees are also considered refugees. The definition is the basis for the activities of UNRWA.

Created in 1949 in the wake of the 1948 War of Independence, UNRWA operates schools and provides health care and other social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and their families protest against job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Hadashot said the new US position represented a further endorsement of Israel’s positions, months after the administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocated the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The TV report said officials at the Trump administration National Security Agency were refusing to comment on the story, but that the officials said that “the administration will announce its policy on UNRWA at the appropriate time.”

US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 22, 2018. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem/Flash90)

Earlier this month, Foreign Policy reported that Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, has been pushing to remove the refugee status of millions of Palestinians as part of an apparent effort to shutter UNRWA.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called in the past for UNRWA to be dismantled. Last July, for instance, he accused the organization of inciting against Israel while doing nothing to help the plight of Palestinian refugees. He asked why they needed a specific 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 be integrated into the UN High Commission for Refugees,” he said, accusing the body of “perpetuating” the plight of Palestinian refugees.

On Friday, the head of UNRWA suggested that the United States had been slashing his budget to punish the Palestinians for their criticism of the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and warned that the Palestinian refugee issue would not go away.

In this Aug. 23, 2018 photo, the head of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) Pierre Kraehenbuehl speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

“One cannot simply wish 5 million people away,” Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the UNRWA commissioner, said.

Also Friday, the State Department announced a cut of more than $200 million in aid to the Palestinians, indicating that those tax-payer funds no longer served American interests.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the move as an attempt to “blackmail” the Palestinians into abandoning their demand for East Jerusalem and the Old City to serve as the capital of their hoped-for independent Palestinian state.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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