UN defends Palestinian refugee agency, says its work ‘is critical’

United Nations spokesperson says UNRWA ‘will have to find other sources’ if Trump administration cuts funding

Illustrative: A Palestinian woman outside the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City, August 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra/File)
Illustrative: A Palestinian woman outside the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City, August 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra/File)

The United Nations spokesman said Monday that the work of the UN agency that helps Palestinian refugees “is critical” and if the United States or any other donor cuts its contributions “we will have to find other sources.”

Stephane Dujarric was responding to questions about published reports that the United States — the largest contributor to the UN Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA — is planning major cuts to its budget.

Dujarric said UNRWA has a mandate from the UN General Assembly to foster the “human development” of Palestinian refugees and serves “some of the most marginalized population in the Middle East.”

He said the agency’s health, education and humanitarian help “is a force for stabilization in a very volatile area.”

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were forced from their homes during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Today, UNRWA’s mandate covers 5 million refugees and their descendants, mostly scattered throughout the region.

Eliminating or sharply reducing the US contribution could hamstring the agency and severely curtail its work, putting great pressure on Jordan and Lebanon as well as the Palestinian Authority. Gaza would be particularly hard hit. Some officials, including Israelis, warn that cutting aid might push people closer to the Hamas terror group, which controls Gaza.

Israel has often criticized UNRWA, accusing it of sheltering terrorists and allowing Palestinians to remain refugees even after settling in a new city or country for many generations, thus complicating the prospect of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The US donated $355 million to UNRWA in 2016, and was set to make a similar contribution this year; the first installment was to have been sent this month.

But after a highly critical January 2 tweet from Trump on aid to the Palestinians, the State Department opted to wait for a formal policy decision before sending any money.

Trump’s tweet expressed frustration over the lack of progress in his attempts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and he pointed his finger at the Palestinians. “We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” he said. “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

Although Trump referred to all US assistance to the Palestinians, the contribution to the refugee agency would be the first to be affected.

Three days after the tweet, at a January 5 White House meeting, senior national security officials tried to find a way forward. Led by representatives of the State Department and Pentagon, all but one of the members of Trump’s “Policy Coordination Committee” agreed to continue the funding, officials said.

The lone holdout was Nikki Haley’s representative, who insisted that Trump’s tweet had set the policy and the money must be cut off, the officials said.

The meeting ended in a stalemate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then weighed in, telling his cabinet that he agreed with the critique of the agency. He said the agency only perpetuates problems and should gradually cease operating in the region.

Netanyahu suggested transferring the agency’s budget to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which aids refugee matters everywhere in the world. It was not immediately clear whether any withheld US assistance would be shifted.

US officials on Sunday said Trump has not made a final decision, but appears more likely to send only $60 million of the planned $125 million first installment.

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