Netanyahu supports US move to halt funding of Palestinian refugee agency

PM’s office says UNWRA is ‘one of the main problems perpetuating the conflict’; reports say US to announce defunding within days, will also reject Palestinian right of return

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on August 12, 2018. (AFP Photo/Pool/Jim Hollander)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on August 12, 2018. (AFP Photo/Pool/Jim Hollander)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supports a reported plan by US President Donald Trump to halt all aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Hadashot news reported Friday.

“Israel supports the move because UNWRA is one of the main problems perpetuating the conflict,” Hadashot quoted Netanyahu’s office as saying.

A senior Israeli official told Channel 10 TV that Israel supports providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians, but not through UNWRA (the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees). The official said the funding would be better spent by other agencies.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Washington has made a final decision to halt all funding for UNWRA and will announce the move in the next few weeks.

The State Department said Friday it had no announcements to make on UNRWA funding, and UNRWA’s representative in Washington, Elizabeth Campbell, said the agency has not been informed by the administration of any final decision about its funding. It comes amid deepening concern over deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the West Bank and Gaza.

The US donated $355 million to UNWRA in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution this year. In January, it released $60 million in funds but withheld a further $65 million it had been due to provide, making clear that further donations would be contingent on reforms of the agency. The Trump administration is now set to reprogram the remaining funds — around $290 million.

A Palestinian woman rides in a car after collecting aid provided by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNWRA, in Gaza City on January 17, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

The withdrawal of US funding would leave UNRWA facing a financial crisis, but Campbell noted that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and others have provided more than $200 million in new funding to help cover its budget this year.

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

“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.”

In recent days, senior Trump administration officials have publicly reiterated their dissatisfaction with UNRWA but stopped short of saying the US would defund the agency, a planned move which was reported first by Foreign Policy magazine.

The Washington 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 five million claimed by Palestinians.

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.

It says there is no justification for UNRWA’s unique criteria, by which all subsequent generations of descendants of the original refugees are also designated as having refugee status, including those born elsewhere and/or holding citizenship elsewhere; such a designation does not apply to the world’s other refugee populations.

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.

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.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 25, 2018. (Susan Walsh/AP)

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.”

Also Tuesday, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley questioned Palestinian claims to a “right of return” to modern Israel, saying she believed that the hot button issue should be taken “off the table.”

Haley suggested the Trump administration would consider an official rejection of the Palestinian demand that all refugees who were displaced between 1947 and 1948 — as well as all of their descendants — be allowed to return to modern-day Israel following a final peace accord.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as US Ambassador to the United Nation Nikki Haley speaks at the US Department of State in Washington DC on June 19, 2018. (AFP Photo/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

Last weekend a Hadashot TV report said the US would announce a policy that, “from its point of view, essentially cancels the ‘right of return.’” It said the US in early September will produce a report that says there are actually only some half-a-million Palestinians who should be legitimately considered refugees, and makes plain that it rejects the UN designation under which the millions of descendants of those displaced between 1947 and 1948 are also considered Palestinian refugees.

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 integrated into the UN High Commission for Refugees,” he said, accusing the body of “perpetuating” the plight of Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian refugees collect aid parcels at a United Nations food distribution center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 21, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

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 Palestinian outrage over his 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.

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