Washington has made a final decision to halt all aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and will announce the move in the next few weeks, according to a report Thursday night.
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 the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (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.
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.
Last weekend a Hadashot TV report said the US will 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 the original refugees are also considered refugees.
UNRWA, created in 1949 in the wake of the 1948 War of Independence, operates schools and provides health care and other social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
The US had been providing UNRWA with some $350 million a year — more than any other country — but as part of a slew of cuts in foreign aid given to Palestinians, the White House announced this year that it would withhold $300 million in assistance to the relief agency.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
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.
Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.