UNRWA head signals US defunding won’t shut down agency

UNRWA head signals US defunding won’t shut down agency

Pierre Krahenbuhl tells Washington Post the situation remains ‘critical,’ but expresses hope other donor countries will make up deficit

In this Aug. 23, 2018 photo, the head of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) Pierre Kraehenbuehl speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
In this Aug. 23, 2018 photo, the head of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) Pierre Kraehenbuehl speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The head of the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) on Monday said he believes funding from other countries will make up a shortfall of some $200 million after the United States withdrew its financial support for the organization.

Speaking to the Washington Post, UNRWA commissioner-general Pierre Krahenbuhl said that since the US announced in January that it would be cutting its contributions to the agency, he was not given a “consolidated position on the reasons for it.”

“This has led me to believe that this decision was made for political reasons as part of the tensions between the US and Palestinian Authority. There is nothing that UNRWA can do about this,” said Krahenbuhl.

The US decision to defund the agency has left UNRWA with a deficit of some $446 million, he said, over half of which has been covered by donations from other countries, including Japan, India, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the European Union.

“The situation still remains critical but I hope we will overcome the remaining $200 million debt,” he said.

The UNRWA commissioner-general also slammed Washington for what he described as a false claim on the agency’s perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem.

“We have to set the record straight, it is just false and wrong to describe things in that manner,” he told the Post. “There is only one thing that perpetuates the situation of refugees, including Palestinian refugees, and that is the extraordinary failure of the international community to bring about a just and fair and inclusive solution to the conflict.”

Schoolgirls watch as UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krahenbuhl, gives a press conference to launch a global campaign to support UNRWA, at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory School in Gaza City, January 22, 2018 (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Krahenbuhl also countered the argument that UNRWA is responsible for exacerbating the refugee crisis by classifying Palestinian refugees in a manner that differs from the wider agency within the international body, saying that UNHCR also deals with refugees’ children and grandchildren.

UNRWA grants refugee status to all descendants of Palestinians who left or fled Israel with the establishment of the state in 1948, swelling the number to an estimated five million at present, when the number of actual refugees from that conflict is estimated to be in the low tens of thousands. In peace talks, the Palestinian leadership has always demanded a “right of return” to Israel for these millions — an influx that, if accepted by Israel, would spell the end of the Israel as a majority Jewish state.

Krahenbuhl went into more depth on the issue of the difference between UNRWA and UNHCR in an interview with Foreign Policy last month in which he said that UNHCR also sometimes counts the children and grandchildren of refugees also as refugees, because the humanitarian organization “rests on the notion that family unity, the principle of family unity, is keeping families united and together as one of the key parameters of managing refugee crises.”

The US announced on Friday that it would cut nearly $300 million in planned funding for UNRWA, castigating the agency for its practices, and saying it will no longer provide funding at all.

The move announced by the US drew swift condemnation from Palestinians and warnings from the agency’s administrators.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Saturday that the Palestinian leadership was considering going to the UN General Assembly and Security Council in a bid to get the US to reverse its decision.

A worker readies a shipment of relief aid to Gaza at the warehouses of the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization in Amman Jan . 22, 2009, from UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) (AP Photo/Mohammad Abu Ghosh)

A day earlier, he described the move as a “flagrant assault against the Palestinian people and a defiance of UN resolutions.”

Israel has long called for the agency to be shut down, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying Sunday that it was a “welcome and important change.”

The Foreign Ministry also issued a statement in support of the Trump administration’s step, slamming the UN body.

“UNRWA perpetuates the myth of the eternal ‘refugee’ status of the Palestinians. The sole purpose is sustaining an illegitimate instrument aimed at the destruction of the State of Israel. UNRWA is part of the problem, not of the solution,” the ministry said in a statement posted on the Twitter page of spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon.

However, sources in the Israeli defense establishment are said to fear that Washington’s efforts to weaken UNRWA may strengthen the Hamas terror group in Gaza and endanger Israel’s security.

They have reportedly said 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 UN 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.

The US has been supplying nearly 30 percent of the total budget of UNRWA, which provides healthcare, education, and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

The US donated $355 million to the agency in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution this year. In January the Trump administration released $60 million in funds but withheld a further $65 million it had been due to provide.

The US will now work together with other international groups to find a better model to assist the Palestinians, the State Department said.

The US also indicated that it rejected the criteria by which UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees.

A Palestinian woman sits with a child after receiving food supplies from the United Nations’ offices at the United Nations’ offices in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, February 11, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

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 living original refugees from what is today’s Israel, and their millions of descendants — should be allowed to resettle in the Jewish state. Israel rejects the demand, saying that it represents a bid by the Palestinians to destroy Israel by weight of numbers, and argues that other refugees under the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) are treated differently and much more quickly resettled.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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