Netanyahu wants UNRWA gradually shut down, backs US cuts

Netanyahu wants UNRWA gradually shut down, backs US cuts

Amid Israeli officials’ concern about humanitarian fallout, PM accuses UN agency of perpetuating conflict by serving the Palestinian ‘right of return’ narrative

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 7, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 7, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the United States to gradually reduce its support for the UN’s aid agency for the Palestinians by transferring that aid money to the UN’s other refugee agency, UNHCR, which supports all other refugee groups. Ultimately, he said, UNRWA should be shut down altogether.

In comments Sunday to ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting, he said, “I completely agree with President Trump’s sharp criticism of UNRWA. UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem, and perpetuates also the narrative of the so-called right of return, whose goal is the elimination of Israel. For these reasons, UNRWA should be shut down.”

Israel has long complained that UNRWA, unlike UNHCR, has no limits to its recognition of refugees, allowing unlimited generations of descendants, including those born in other countries or who are citizens of those countries, to continue to be classified as refugees in perpetuity.

“This is a body established separately 70 years ago, just for Palestinian refugees, while the UNHCR exists for all other refugees in the world,” Netanyahu said. “This has led to the situation where the great-grandchildren of refugees, who are not themselves refugees, are cared for by UNRWA, and in 70 more years there will be great-grandchildren of those great-grandchildren — and so this absurdity has to end.”

UN trucks carrying building materials for projects funded by UNRWA arrive in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip after crossing the Israeli Kerem Shalom crossing on December 10, 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

But instead of cutting UNRWA off at once, a move opposed by the IDF and other Israeli security and diplomatic agencies, he urged a more gradual approach.

“I have a simple suggestion: UNRWA’s aid money should be transferred gradually to the UNHCR, which has clear criteria for supporting true refugees, and not the fake refugee status we have today under UNRWA,” he said. “I have expressed this position to the United States. This is the proper way to shut down UNRWA and to ensure that real refugee problems are cared for, should any remain [once UNHCR criteria for recognizing refugees are applied to the Palestinians].

Netanyahu’s comments confirmed earlier reports that Israel was cautiously supporting the anticipated US funding cut, but is aiming to minimize possible harm to the Palestinians and prevent a serious humanitarian crisis from developing as a result, especially in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s Hadashot TV news reported on Saturday that Netanyahu’s suggestion to reroute UNRWA’s money to another UN body, with the funds still going to aid Palestinian refugees, would allow the US to back up its threat to cut funding, but also minimize any damage the funding cut could wreak in Gaza.

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.

Sunday’s comments to the cabinet were Netanyahu’s first public reference to the reports about the possible slashing of American funding to UNRWA, following Hebrew media reports that said he was privately urging the US not to go through with the cuts.

An Israeli official told the Reuters news agency Saturday that Netanyahu had backed only a “gradual” cut to UNRWA. An Israeli security source told Channel 10 on Friday the funding cuts to UNRWA would make an already tense situation in Gaza “much worse.”

A convoy of humanitarian aid waits in front of the UNRWA offices before making their way into the rebel-held towns of Madaya, Zabadani and al-Moadhamiya in the Damascus countryside, as part of a UN-sponsored aid operation, in Damascus, Syria, February 17, 2016. (AP)

The Palestinians rely heavily on international aid, with many analysts, including Israelis, saying such assistance helps maintain stability in a volatile region.

The US is the largest donor to the refugee agency, which provides humanitarian assistance to some 5.3 million Palestinians classified by UNRWA as refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and throughout the Middle East.

Over the weekend, Netanyahu’s office said he “supports President Trump’s critical attitude toward UNRWA and believes practical steps need to be taken in order to change the fact that UNRWA is being used to entrench the Palestinian refugee problem instead of solving it.”

Trump first threatened to cut off aid to the PA on Tuesday, asking why Washington should make “any of these massive future payments” when the Palestinians were “no longer willing to talk peace.”

“We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” Trump tweeted. “They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more.”

US President Donald Trump and US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speak during a meeting on United Nations Reform at the United Nations headquarters on September 18, 2017, in New York. (AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY)

It was not immediately clear whether Trump was threatening the entirety of the budget, worth $319 million in 2016, according to US government figures.

Relations between Trump’s White House and the Palestinians have soured since Trump’s December 6 announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The declaration led Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to break off all contact with the Trump administration, and he has refused to meet with US officials regarding the peace process, including envoy Jason Greenblatt and Vice President Mike Pence, angering the administration.

On Friday, senior US officials denied reports that $125 million in aid to the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency had been frozen.

“Contrary to reports that we have halted funding to UNRWA, the decision is under review,” a State Department official told The Times of Israel. “There are still deliberations taking place, and we have missed no deadline.”

Earlier on Friday, Channel 10 news reported that $125 million in US funding that should have been transferred to UNRWA by January 1 was being held up.

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