Netanyahu hails US defunding of ‘refugee perpetuation agency’ UNRWA

PM says Israel has integrated people who’ve lost their homes, but the UN agency hasn’t; Foreign Ministry says body’s activities ‘aimed at the destruction’ of Israel

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting a school in the community of Yad Binyamin on the first day of the school year, September 2, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting a school in the community of Yad Binyamin on the first day of the school year, September 2, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Foreign Ministry on Sunday praised the United States decision to defund the UN agency that deals with Palestinian refugees and their descendants, with the premier saying it was a “welcome and important change.”

The US announced on Friday that it would cut nearly $300 million in planned funding for the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), castigating the agency for its practices, and will no longer provide funding at all.

During a visit to a school in the community of Yad Binyamin on the first day of the school year, Netanyahu said that Israel had absorbed many refugees during its existence and resettled displaced people, citing the years following the Holocaust and the wake of the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

“Have displaced people not come to us from various countries? Holocaust survivors torn from their land?” he said. “They were uprooted, survived and came here. Did we keep them in the status of refugees? No, we absorbed them, including hundreds of thousands of Jews who left all their property behind and were uprooted from Arab countries in the [1948] War of Independence.

“We didn’t keep them as refugees. We made them equal and contributing citizens in our state,” Netanyahu continued. “That isn’t what’s happening with the Palestinians, where 70 years ago they created a special institution: not absorbing refugees, and instead perpetuating refugees.

“That’s why the US did something very important by stopping the funding for the refugee perpetuation agency known as UNRWA,” the prime minister added. “It is finally starting to solve the problem. The funds must be taken and used to genuinely help rehabilitate the refugees, whose true number is a fraction of the number reported by UNRWA.

“This is a very welcome and important change, and we support it,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry also issued a statement in support of the Trump administration’s step, slamming the UN body.

“UNRWA perpetuates the myth of the eternal ‘refugee’ status of the Palestinians. The sole purpose is sustaining an illegitimate instrument aimed at the destruction of the State of Israel. UNRWA is part of the problem, not of the solution,” the ministry said in a statement posted on the Twitter page of spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman of PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Flash90)

The move announced by the US drew swift condemnation from Palestinians and warnings from the agency’s administrators.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Saturday that the Palestinian leadership was considering going to the UN General Assembly and Security Council in a bid to get the US to reverse its decision.

A day earlier, he described the move as a “flagrant assault against the Palestinian people and a defiance of UN resolutions.”

Israel has long called for the agency to be shut down.

In a written statement Friday, the State Department said that the US “will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”

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)

“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 the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees, something not granted by the UN to refugees from any other places.

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

The US has been supplying nearly 30 percent of the total budget of UNRWA, which provides healthcare, education, and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

The US donated $355 million to the agency in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution this year. In January the Trump administration released $60 million in funds but withheld a further $65 million it had been due to provide.

The US also 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 “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 living original refugees from what is today’s Israel, and their millions of descendants — should be allowed to resettle in the Jewish state. Israel rejects the demand, saying that it represents a bid by the Palestinians to destroy Israel by weight of numbers, and argues that other refugees under the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) are treated differently and much more quickly resettled.

AFP contributed to this report.

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