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Swiss FM questions UNRWA’s role in aiding Palestinians

Ignazio Cassis reiterates that Palestinian UN agency ‘part of the problem,’ says his country should debate foreign funding projects

Palestinian refugees hold placards at a school belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the town of Sebline east of the southern Lebanese port of Saida, on March 12, 2018, during a protest against US aid cuts to the organization. (AFP PHOTO / Mahmoud ZAYYAT)
Palestinian refugees hold placards at a school belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the town of Sebline east of the southern Lebanese port of Saida, on March 12, 2018, during a protest against US aid cuts to the organization. (AFP PHOTO / Mahmoud ZAYYAT)

Switzerland’s new foreign minister said the international community should decide whether the UN refugee agency for Palestinians has become a “state within a state,” and questioned whether the Swiss should continue to help funding it.

In what critics call a break from vaunted Swiss neutrality, Ignazio Cassis doubled down on comments he made earlier this month that UNRWA had strayed too far from its original mandate to help Palestinians refugees temporarily.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, when around 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

Switzerland has given UNRWA more than $20 million annually in the last five years, and plans to continue similar funding through 2020.

But Cassis told the RTS radio station Wednesday that the Swiss people have the right to debate where public funding abroad is going.

“This allows the Swiss people to ask themselves what our country is doing and perhaps come to the conclusion that it is the best way forward at the moment,” he said.

Swiss Confederation Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis looks during a joint press conference with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, Tuesday, April 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Cassis brushed off backlash sparked by his comments. “What I said, I said after a long discussion with the director general of UNRWA, so I spoke with full knowledge of the facts,” he told RTS.

After visiting Jordan earlier this month, Cassis said that UNRWA was once part of the solution, but has become “part of the problem” in the Middle East.

The minister pointed out that the number of Palestinians listed as refugees — the vast majority of whom are descendants of refugees — living in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza has swelled to more than five million. This is because, unlike other refugee populations worldwide, the UN extends refugee status to the children and subsequent descendants of the original Palestinian refugees.

“It is unrealistic that this dream [of return] will be fulfilled for all,” he said in an interview given to several German-language papers owned by the Swiss NZZ group. “But UNRWA maintains this hope. For me, the question is whether UNRWA is part of the solution or part of the problem,” he said, concluding that “it is both.”

The UN agency, he added, “worked as a solution for a long time, but today it has become part of the problem.”

“It provides ammunition to continue the conflict. For as long as Palestinians live in refugee camps, they will want to return to their homeland,” he said. “By supporting UNRWA, we are keeping the conflict alive.”

Palestinians run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018. (AFP/ MAHMUD HAMS)

A risk Switzerland cannot afford

UNRWA is, meanwhile, struggling to cover a massive budget shortfall, after major donor Washington slashed its 2018 funding.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has opted to cut the $360 million offered in 2017 to a commitment of just $60 million this year, leaving UNRWA scrambling to raise nearly half a billion dollars to guarantee services until the end of the year.

Switzerland is among a group of countries that together pledged about $100 million in March to help fill the shortfall.

Despite his skepticism of the role UNRWA is playing in the Middle East, Cassis warned that the sudden funding cut facing the agency posed “a big risk.”

“Millions of Palestinians could take to the streets,” he said, cautioning that lacking funds could cause the breakdown of a “machinery that provides stability.”

Palestinian children stand next to bags of food aid provided by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on January 24, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

“This is a risk that Switzerland cannot afford,” he said.

Cassis said his country would continue funding UNRWA, but he also called for a heavier focus on integrating Palestinian refugees into their host communities.

He said for instance that “instead of supporting UNRWA schools and hospitals, we could help the Jordanian institutions promote integration of Palestinian refugees.”

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