Israeli officials never wanted UNRWA funds slashed, ex-US envoy says

Dan Shapiro tells ToI talks always focused on reforming Palestinian refugee organization rather than ending financial support, underscoring dramatic shift in policy

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. (Andrew Tobin/JTA)
Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. (Andrew Tobin/JTA)

During the eight years of the Barack Obama administration Israeli officials were opposed to cutting off funds for the UN agency dealing with Palestinian refugees, former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said Monday.

Shapiro’s comments underline Jerusalem’s dramatic change of policy, coming after it full-throatedly welcomed the current US administration’s decision to cease all financial assistance to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.

Shapiro said UNRWA was a frequent topic of discussion between Israeli and US officials, but while Jerusalem had pushed for reforming the organization, it never sought to have the US slash funds to the organization.

“Some of us in the administration agreed with Israeli complaints about UNRWA’s flaws and needs for reform,” Shapiro told The Times of Israel in an interview.

“Whenever the conversation proceeded, it was about the need for reform in UNRWA, the complaints — some of them very legitimate — about the structure of UNRWA, about some of what goes on in school and the way in which it helps perpetuate a myth of millions of refugees returning to Israel. But the question of actually cutting off US funding for it was never put forward by any Israeli official,” Shapiro said.

Palestinian demonstrators burn an effigy depicting US President Donald Trump during a protest against US aid cuts, outside the United Nations’ offices at the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on February 11, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, and top security brass, including senior officials in the IDF, COGAT and other security agencies, adamantly opposed an abrupt cutting off funds, said Shapiro, who currently serves as a visiting scholar at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for Strategic Studies.

He said even when he asked the Israeli officials directly if they wanted the US to cut off funding, they made clear it was not their recommendation.

“What was being requested was effort to reform and to improve UNRWA, obviously using US funding as leverage to change its mission, to change its conduct and its structure, but not eliminate its funding,” he said.

However, some Israeli officials may have contemplated a reduction in funding for UNRWA as part of a phased reform of the agency, Shapiro added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with then US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in April 2013. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself may have occasionally complained about UNRWA, especially when Hamas rockets were found in schools in Gaza under the agency’s auspices, “but to my knowledge he made never any indication that he was in favor of US cutting off funds entirely,” said Shapiro, who served as Obama’s envoy to Israel between August 2011 and January 2017.

The stance stands in sharp contrast to Jerusalem’s praise following the State Department’s announcement on Friday that it would cease all funding for the group.

Washington has done “a very important thing by halting the financing for the refugee perpetuation agency known as UNRWA,” Netanyahu said Sunday.

“It is finally beginning to resolve the problem. The funds must be taken and used to genuinely help rehabilitate the refugees, the true number of which is much smaller than the number reported by UNRWA. This is a welcome and important change and we support it.”

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)

Israel’s Channel 10 reported on Sunday that Netanyahu dramatically changed course in recent weeks by endorsing a total cut to US funding UNRWA, without consulting the security cabinet and other important advisory bodies.

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

Palestinians receive aid at a United Nations distribution center (UNRWA) in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip on July 31, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

They have reportedly said 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 UN 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 US administration’s announcement on Friday echoed Israeli complaints about the body, indicating rejection of the criteria UNRWA uses to define 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 written statement that the United States “will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”

The US will now work together with other international groups to find a better model to assist the Palestinians, the statement said.

The US supplied nearly 30 percent of the total budget of the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides health care, education, and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

A spokesman for UNRWA on Sunday said the end of US support will be “difficult,” but will not cause the UN agency for Palestinian refugees to close its doors.

“It will be difficult, but UNRWA will not abandon its responsibilities,” Adnan Abu Hasna said in an interview with Hadashot news. The cut in US aid “will not destroy UNRWA.”

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