UNRWA head: US aid freeze ‘not related to our performance’

Pierre Krahenbuhl dismisses need for reform, says American funding for Palestinian refugee agency is ‘caught up’ in Jerusalem recognition dispute

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)
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)

The head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees said Friday a US decision to freeze tens of millions of dollars in aid resulted from diplomatic disputes rather than the agency’s performance.

The US State Department this week put on hold two planned payments of more than $100 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA.

The State Department denied the freeze was to punish the Palestinian Authority, which has cut ties with US President Donald Trump’s administration following his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with a spokeswoman saying it was linked to necessary “reform” of UNRWA.

But Pierre Krahenbuhl, the agency’s commissioner general, said it had not been informed by the United States of any new reform demands and had been simply “caught up” in a political dispute.

“I have to look at this as not related to our performance but a decision and a debate that was caught up in the aftermath of what of course was the General Assembly resolution on Jerusalem and other matters,” Krahenbuhl told AFP in an interview in Jerusalem.

“My perception is there is a debate in the US administration about funding to the Palestinians and our funding got caught up in that.”

A Palestinian man loads a horse-pulled cart with food aid outside the United Nations food distribution center in Gaza City on January 15, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

The US gave around $700 million in support to the Palestinians last year, of which about half went to UNRWA, which has a non-political mandate to provide schooling, health care and other services to more than three million Palestinians across the Middle East.

Israel and some American politicians accuse the agency of bias, with Israeli leaders saying its existence perpetuates the conflict.

While welcomed in Israel, Trump’s December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital angered the Palestinians, who seek East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said the US under Trump can no longer be a mediator in peace talks with Israel, even though Trump stressed the recognition was not a statement of position on the city’s final boundaries.

In late December the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the US decision in a non-binding resolution, after the US vetoed a similar Security Council measure.

‘No further communication’

Trump had been pushing to restart peace talks, but on January 2 he tweeted that the US gives the Palestinians “HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS” and gets “no appreciation or respect.”

“With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

This week his administration suspended $65 million to UNRWA, and then another $45 million in food aid destined for the agency.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the money was being held but could be released “in the future, if reforms are met, if UNRWA agrees to undertake reforms, if other countries agreed to pitch in and provide money.”

US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pose for a photograph during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

Krahenbuhl said the agency had received no communication from the United States about necessary reforms in recent days.

He added that during a recent visit to the US he had been informed the administration was satisfied with UNRWA’s performance.

“What is new is a decision by the United States to dramatically reduce its contribution and that was not — in the communications to me — associated with reform elements.”

“We were simply informed that the contribution to our core budget would be this year $60 million when the United States contributed in total to UNRWA last year $360 million.”

“For the moment there has been no further communication.”

The Trump administration argues that other global powers are not paying enough for UNRWA, with China contributing only $300,000 last year, while Russia has just agreed to give $2 million a year for the coming years.

A Palestinian woman walks outside of a United Nations’ school at the Dheisheh refugee camp, near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on January 17, 2018. (AFP Photo/Musa al-Shaer)

Krahenbuhl said UNRWA was searching for new sources of support, but that hundreds of thousands of students relied on the agency.

In 2015 UNRWA schools nearly did not open on time because of funding shortages.

“What is at stake is the access of 525,000 boys and girls to their education,” Krahenbuhl said.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the US move to withhold payments, telling reporters during his state visit to India this week that for “the first time that there is a challenge to UNRWA, after 70 years.

“The agency that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and narrative of erasing Zionism — and this is the first time this thing is challenged. It’s a good thing that they’re moving forward and challenging this body,” he said.

Netanyahu has urged that funding for Palestinian refugees be maintained, but not through UNRWA. Rather, he has called for it to be transferred through the UN’s main refugee body, UNHCR.

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year, even as other refugee populations in the world shrink with each passing generation.

UNRWA counters that it is caring for a population that is scattered in several countries in the region, but is not served either by Israel or those countries, which refuse to grant most of them or their descendants citizenship, and that its definition of refugees reflects that reality.

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