Report: PM lobbied US to defund UNRWA without consulting cabinet, security heads

Netanyahu reportedly changed policy, surprising defense officials, in covertly urging White House to completely end funding for Palestinian refugee organization

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a holiday toast event for Local Council chairmen at Airport City, ahead of the Jewish New Year, on August 30, 2018. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a holiday toast event for Local Council chairmen at Airport City, ahead of the Jewish New Year, on August 30, 2018. (Flash90)

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a secret message to the White House urging US President Donald Trump to cut all funding for UNRWA, the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, without consulting first with his defense officials, according to a Sunday news report.

Four senior Israeli officials told Channel 10 news that until a few weeks ago, Jerusalem’s policy was that the US should not cut its funding completely, especially in the Gaza Strip, due to fears of a humanitarian crisis and the security issues it could raise.

This approach reportedly had the backing of the Shin Bet security service, the IDF, and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a branch of the Defense Ministry responsible for liaising with the Palestinians. This was also the message Jerusalem had consistently conveyed to the White House and Congress.

However, according to the television report, a few weeks ago, Netanyahu unilaterally decided the best approach would be for the US to cease funding UNRWA entirely. He conveyed this message to the administration through Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.

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)

The officials who spoke to Channel 10 said the policy change was made without consultation with the high-level security cabinet or any serious discussion with defense officials.

“We didn’t understand where this came from,” one official told the television station.

On Friday, the Trump administration announced it was cutting nearly $300 million in planned funding for UNRWA, and that it would no longer fund the agency after decades of support. Instead, it said it would seek other channels by which to aid the Palestinians.

On Saturday, Jerusalem welcomed the US decision.

“Israel supports the US move,” an official in Netanyahu’s office said on condition of anonymity.

“Consolidating the refugee status of Palestinians is one of the problems that perpetuates the conflict.”

A Palestinian man near the UNRWA relief and social program office in Gaza City on January 8, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

The US administration castigated the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) for failed practices, and 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 State Department said in a written statement that the United States “will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”

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

The US supplied 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.

Sources in the Israeli defense establishment are said to fear that Washington’s efforts to weaken UNRWA may strengthen the Hamas terror group in Gaza and endanger Israel’s security.

They have reportedly said 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 UN 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.

A spokesman for UNRWA on Sunday said the end of US support will be “difficult,” but will not cause the UN agency for Palestinian refugees to close its doors.

“It will be difficult, but UNRWA will not abandon its responsibilities,” Adnan Abu Hasna said in an interview with Hadashot news. The cut in US aid “will not destroy UNRWA.”

Hasna slammed the Trump administration for blaming UNRWA for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee issue.

“UNRWA is doing its job in accordance with a UN resolution, if they want to destroy UNRWA, then they should go to the UN and explain it there,” he said. “If they have a majority, there will be no more UNRWA.”

Hasna said the UN agency provides food and education to over a million Palestinian in Gaza, and without it, humanitarian conditions in the Strip would significantly deteriorate.

“If there will be no UNRWA, there will be starvation in Gaza,” he said.

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