A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas assailed the US for announcing Friday that it will end all funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, calling the move a “flagrant assault” against all Palestinians.
“The consecutive American decisions represent a flagrant assault against the Palestinian people and a defiance of UN resolutions,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh told the Reuters news agency late Friday, alluding to a series of US moves opposed by the Palestinians including the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“Such a punishment will not succeed to change the fact that the United States no longer has a role in the region and that it is not a part of the solution,” he added.
His remarks came shortly after the Trump administration announced it is cutting nearly $300 million in planned funding for the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which it castigated for failed practices, and will no longer fund the agency at all.
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.
Saeb Erekat, the main Palestinian negotiator in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, also slammed the US over the move and called on other countries to do likewise.
“The United States of America has no right to support and bless theft of Palestinian lands and illegitimate Israeli colonialism on Palestinian land. It has no right to support and bless the theft of Jerusalem and its annexation to Israel, and does not have the right to act according to the whims of Sheldon Adelson and Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said referring to the American casino magnate, in a statement published on the official PA news site Wafa.
“The American administration’s decisions on Jerusalem, refugees and settlements embody annihilation of international law and security and stability in the region. They are gifts for radical forces and terrorism in the region,” Erekat added.
He also asked the international community to step up its aid to UNRWA in the wake of the US decision in order to “enable it to undertake all its responsibilities for Palestinian refugees.”
PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said the US decision on UNRWA “absolutely will not lead to the dismantling of the agency or the marginalization of the Palestinian refugee issue as President Trump and his administration hope,” according to Wafa.
“On the contrary, this decision will lead to strong responses from many states that will not accept the US’ policy of thuggery with regard to the refugee issue and UNRWA.”
Palestinian ambassador Hossam Zomlot accused the United States of “reneging on its international commitment and responsibility” toward a body that was set by UN General Assembly resolution in 1949.
“By endorsing the most extreme Israeli narrative on all issues including the rights of more than 5 million Palestinian refugees, the US administration has lost its status as peacemaker and is damaging not only an already volatile situation but the prospects for future peace,” he said.
In a written statement earlier, the State Department said that the US “will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”
“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 all the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees, something not granted by the UN to refugees from any other places.
However, the statement said the US would look for other ways to aid the Palestinians.
“We are very mindful of and deeply concerned regarding the impact upon innocent Palestinians, especially school children, of the failure of UNRWA and key members of the regional and international donor community to reform and reset the UNRWA way of doing business,” it said, adding that “Palestinians, wherever they live, deserve better than an endlessly crisis-driven service provision model. They deserve to be able to plan for the future.”
The US will now work together with other international groups to find a better model to assist the Palestinians, the statement said.
Reports had circulated throughout the week that the US was planning the move.
The US supplies 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.
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.
Ahead of the announcement, Israel signaled its support for the move.
“Israel supports the move because UNWRA is one of the main problems perpetuating the conflict,” Hadashot news quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office as saying on Friday evening.
A senior Israeli official told Channel 10 TV that Israel supports providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians, but not through UNWRA.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the US would also move ahead with 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.
There was no explicit call for this in the State Department statement, however, beyond the criticisms of “UNWRA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”
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.
Earlier this week, Abbas said that he does not support a solution to the contentious issue of Palestinian refugees that would “destroy Israel,” according to two Israelis who met with him and spoke to The Times of Israel.
“He told us that he does not support or want a solution to the issue of refugees that would ‘destroy Israel’,” Ilai Alon, a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and a fluent Arabic speaker, said in a phone call.
A Palestinian official who was present at the meeting confirmed the substance of Abbas’s remarks, but said the PA chief did not use the word “destroy.”
“He said that he does not want to ‘drown’ Israel with refugees, but that we still need to find a solution to the issue of refugees,” the Palestinian official, who asked to remain unnamed, said in a phone call. “He did not use the term ‘destroy.’”
Abbas and other top Palestinian officials have long called for “a just and agreed upon” solution to the issue of refugees in accordance with UN General Assembly resolution 194.
Issued in the middle of the Arab-Israel War of Independence in December 1948, UN General Assembly resolution 194 says that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date” and adds that “compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property.”
Israel has staunchly opposed the return of Palestinian refugees to their former and ancestral homes, arguing that, with the number of refugees now inflated into millions because of the UNRWA criteria, such a move would spell the end of the country as a Jewish-majority state.
Agencies contributed to this report.