PM said to push funneling Palestinian refugee aid via Jordan
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PM said to push funneling Palestinian refugee aid via Jordan

Netanyahu also suggests routing funds through UNHCR, but UN head says doing so would mean advocating for Palestinians to return to original homes

A Palestinian woman sits with a child after receiving food supplies from the United Nations' offices at the United Nations' offices in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, February 11, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)
A Palestinian woman sits with a child after receiving food supplies from the United Nations' offices at the United Nations' offices in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, February 11, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pressing for a portion of the UN agency for Palestinians refugees’s budget to be transferred to Jordan, which already hosts millions of Palestinian exiles, an Israeli news channel reported Thursday.

Senior Israeli and US officials told Channel 10 news that the prime minister raised the idea during a meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres last month on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. Guterres reportedly rebuffed another Netanyahu proposal of having the Palestinian refugees cared for by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, saying the move would not help Israel.

Netanyahu in the past has reportedly called for humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees to be routed through other bodies, such as UNHCR, instead of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which currently disburses aid to millions in Gaza, the West Bank and several Arab countries.

Netanyahu told Guterres in Munich that UNRWA’s role should be curtailed, as its policy of recognizing descendants of refugees as refugees as well perpetuates the problem, according to the Channel 10 report.

The prime minister reportedly told Guterres that Israel supported transferring the aid money directly to Amman, which hosts some 2 million Palestinians registered as refugees. Most refugees in the country have citizenship.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres, at the PM's Office in Jerusalem on August 28, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres, at the PM’s Office in Jerusalem on August 28, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu, who visited the UN on Thursday but did not meet Guterres, also reportedly suggested funneling the money to the Palestinians via UNHCR, which aids other refugees around the world.

Guterres, who previously served as the head of the UNHCR, was said to tell the prime minister in response that the organization’s role was not only to provide humanitarian aid, but also to work to return the refugees to their original places of residence.

“Are you sure you want the UN refugee organization to start working for the return of the Palestinian refugees?” the secretary general was said to ask Netanyahu.

While Palestinians displaced from Israel in 1948 and their descendants, numbering in the millions, have pushed for the right of return, Israel has generally refused to consider absorbing them, noting that doing so would functionally end Israel as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu’s push for sidelining UNRWA came after the US made deep cuts to the agency’s budget recently.

In January, UNRWA was notified that the US was withholding some $100 million and demanding a “fundamental re-examination” of the agency in addition to changes to its programs, which have been heavily criticized by Israel.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)

That month, Trump told the World Economic Forum in Davos that the Palestinians must return to peace talks to receive US aid money.

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year, even as other refugee populations in the world shrink with each passing generation.

UNRWA counters that it is caring for a population that is scattered in several countries in the region, but is not served either by Israel or those countries, which refuse to grant most of them or their descendants citizenship, and that its definition of refugees reflects that reality.

In the wake of the announced budget cuts, UNRWA officials have warned the agency was facing an “existential financial crisis,” and has stepped up fundraising efforts elsewhere to make up the shortfall.

Channel 10 reported that the prime minister has assembled a team headed by national security adviser Meir Ben Shabbat tasked with formulating an Israeli proposal to the Trump administration on the issue of UNRWA.

Palestinians collect aid parcels at a United Nations food distribution center in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, January 28, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Netanyahu is looking for a mechanism that would leave the financial support to Palestinian refugees intact without perpetuating their refugee status, a senior official told Channel 10.

In the West Bank and Gaza, Israel is reportedly interested in maintaining some level of UNRWA humanitarian activity, including providing food. Officials reportedly fear cutting UNRWA’s budget in Gaza by too much could worsen a simmering humanitarian crisis there and possibly lead to an outbreak of violence against Israel.

Earlier Thursday, Netanyahu met with US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, whom he lauded for her supportive posture toward Israel since taking up her post in the Trump administration.

“Talk about the tailwind for Israel. We call her Hurricane Haley,” he said. “She does magnificent work for the truth and for the defense of Israel here at the UN.”

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