Top Palestinian cleric: Arab, Islamic countries should fund UNRWA
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Top Palestinian cleric: Arab, Islamic countries should fund UNRWA

Citing 'conspiracies against Jerusalem' in Al-Aqsa sermon, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri rejects reported plans by Washington to redefine status of refugees

Khaled Abu Toameh is the Palestinian Affairs correspondent for The Times of Israel

Sheikh Ekrima Sabri. (AP/Joao Silva)
Sheikh Ekrima Sabri. (AP/Joao Silva)

A senior Palestinian Islamic cleric on Friday called on Arab and Islamic countries to provide financial aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in wake of the US administration’s decision to cut funding to the agency.

Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the former Mufti of Jerusalem, made the appeal during his Friday sermon at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Sabri told thousands of Muslim worshipers that the US administration’s position towards UNRWA did not come as a surprise, especially in the aftermath of US President Donald Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“We are witnessing conspiracies against Jerusalem and the issue of the refugees,” Sabri said. “They want to liquidate the issue of the refugees.

“The Arab and Islamic countries should fund UNRWA without relying on any other country until the refugees return to their homes.”

Muslim worshippers perform Friday noon prayer near the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the Temple Mount, December 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

In his sermon, Sabri rejected any attempt to redefine the status of Palestinian refugees.

He was referring to a recent report suggesting that the Trump administration was considering doing so. According to a Hadashot TV report, the Trump administration is opposed to the United Nations criteria, which extends refugee status and financial aid to millions of descendants of the original Palestinian refugees.

Sabri said that the descendants of the original refugees were also entitled to the status of refugees “because the rights and properties of a refugee are passed on to successive generations through inheritance.”

The issue of the refugees, he added, will continue to exist “until the refugees return to the homes and lands which their fathers and grandfathers were deprived of. We will not give up this legitimate right.”

Sabri claimed that the number of Palestinian refugees “inside and outside Palestine” was over seven million.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, is interviewed in Jerusalem on January 19, 2018. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

“We reject the claim that a refugee is only the one who was displaced from his home and land,” he said. “Inheritance protects the rights of the descendants after the death of a refugee.”

In 1994, former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat appointed Sabri as Mufti of Jerusalem. However, in 2006 PA President Mahmoud Abbas removed Sabri from the job, apparently due to the latter’s hardline views and repeated criticism of the PA and some Arab countries.

The PA and its ruling Fatah faction said Thursday that the issue of Palestinian refugees and their “right of return” was sacred and not open to bargaining.

Israel has consistently rejected allowing all Palestinian refugees to settle in Israel as an existential demographic threat, and most formulas for a peace deal envision only a token number being allowed to return.

According to UNRWA statistics, some five million Palestinian refugees are eligible for the agency’s services.

On Thursday, UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbul also appealed to Arab countries to fund his agency. He was speaking to an Arab League meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo.

On Tuesday he said that Russia, Kuwait and nine European countries had agreed to speed up their contributions to help fill a shortfall left by the Trump administration’s decision to reduce crucial US funding.

Last week, Krahenbul told a press conference in Brussels that he was “surprised” by the US decision to drastically cut funding to UNRWA and urged Gulf countries to step in to help solve the crisis.

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

“The Gulf countries should be included in the global effort,” he said. “There are already significant contributions to UNRWA from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in particular.” He pointed out that although Arab League member states had committed to contribute 7.8 percent to UNRWA’s core funding in the 1980s, last year they contributed only 3.5%.

The PA has dismissed a recent Hadashot TV report according to which the Trump administration is considering halting all of its financial aid to UNRWA.

Palestinian officials have accused the US president of seeking to blackmail the Palestinians.

“This will not dissuade our people from holding on to the sacred right of return and it will not exonerate Israel from the crime of ethnic cleansing it committed in 1948,” the PA statement said.

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