Top minister backs US threat to cut UNRWA aid, contradicting Foreign Ministry

Top minister backs US threat to cut UNRWA aid, contradicting Foreign Ministry

Naftali Bennett, head of right-wing Jewish Home party, slams report that Netanyahu is urging Trump not to implement move over humanitarian concerns

Palestinian children attend a class at the UNRWA elementary school in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, in April 2013 (Illustrative photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)
Palestinian children attend a class at the UNRWA elementary school in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, in April 2013 (Illustrative photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett expressed support Friday for the US threat to cut funding for the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, slamming Israel’s Foreign Ministry for reportedly opposing the move.

“UNRWA is a terror-supporting organization. Its very existence perpetuates the dire situation of Gaza’s population, who suffer under the rule of Hamas,” Bennett, who heads the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party, said in a statement. “President [Donald] Trump and Ambassador [Nikki] Haley’s decision to cut American funding is the right choice.”

He agreed that the residents of Gaza require aid, including from the US and the United Nations, but he said they should receive it in the same way as other needy groups, not through a separate UN aid organization dedicated specifically for Palestinians.

“Aiding the residents of Gaza should be no different than aiding the Syrian residents suffering under a terror regime, or aiding any other group of descendants of refugees,” he said.

Head of the Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 1, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Israel charges that UNRWA’s expansive definition of a Palestinian refugee — including any descendant of a Palestinian who fled or was expelled from the land, including after many generations and even if they have citizenship in another state — helps perpetuate and expand the Palestinian refugee population and feeds a narrative that seeks to displace Israel. UNRWA argues that its definition is meant to enable the group to help needy Palestinian populations not served by either Israel or neighboring countries where they reside.

Hadashot television news reported Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, along with his ministry, opposes Trump’s threat to withdraw funding from UNRWA. There was no confirmation of the TV report.

Bennett, whose party is a member of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, argued that everyone in the government should be supportive of such a move.

“I expect all Israeli branches of government, including the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs], to support a decision to cut funding to an organization which employs Hamas terrorists and uses its schools to hide rockets,” he said.

Thursday’s TV report said Netanyahu was concerned that cutting the funding to the organization could lead to a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, and was said to be privately urging the Trump administration not to implement the threat.

“Behind the scenes, the prime minister is now in contact with the Americans in order to prevent the massive cut [in US funding for UNRWA] — to prevent it, you heard right,” the Hadashot news report claimed.

Netanyahu’s public position is to support the Trump administration’s threats to cut funds to UNRWA, and Jerusalem agrees that “real steps” must be taken so that UNRWA — the United Nations body that provides humanitarian aid to the Palestinians — solves the Palestinian refugee issue rather than perpetuating it, the TV report said. “This comes up often in cabinet meetings.”

Furthermore, the prime minister backs Trump’s tweeted conviction that the Palestinians should be made to pay for refusing to come to the negotiating table. And he does not want to undermine the US president, the report said.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu is anxious to avoid further destabilizing Gaza. He “wants to steer between the desire to publicly back Trump and to prevent a disaster in Gaza,” the TV report said.

The Foreign Ministry, the report added, flatly opposes the idea of cutting UNRWA’s funding. “Professional sources in the Foreign Ministry are ’emphatically opposed’ to ending aid to UNRWA,” it said, quoting these sources as arguing that a cut would “make matters worse” and could lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe, especially in Gaza.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and US President Donald Trump shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

IDF sources, the report further said, “also think it will hurt, not help.”

The Trump administration is currently evaluating its financial backing of UNRWA, a US official said Wednesday, while noting that the US views UNRWA’s work as vital to stability in the region.

Those comments came a day after US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley warned US support for UNRWA could end if the Palestinians refused to engage in peace negotiations.

The US was the biggest donor to UNRWA in 2016, giving $368,429,712. It is also the largest overall supplier of financial support for the Palestinians, giving $600 million in annual aid.

Conditions in the Gaza Strip, controlled by terror group Hamas, are already dire, with electric power only available for a few hours a day and inadequate drinking water and sewage infrastructure. A recent spate of rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza aimed at southern Israeli communities near the Palestinian enclave has drawn Israeli responses in the form of air strikes on Hamas targets. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all fire that comes from its territory, even if it is carried out by other terror groups.

Tensions between the US and Palestinians reached a high after Trump’s December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, with the Palestinian leadership declaring that it would no longer accept Washington as a peace broker.

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