UNRWA laments US decision to cut aid, pushes back against criticism

UNRWA laments US decision to cut aid, pushes back against criticism

UN refugee agency for Palestinians pledges to continue its work despite Trump defunding, vows to fundraise with ‘even greater determination’

Palestinians get hair cuts at an UNRWA school in Rafah where they took shelter during the Gaza war, on August 17, 2014 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians get hair cuts at an UNRWA school in Rafah where they took shelter during the Gaza war, on August 17, 2014 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees said it was disappointed and surprised by the US decision on Friday to stop financially supporting it, while also rejecting criticism its operations are “inherently flawed.”

The State Department said earlier it would end all aid to UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) due to its “unsustainable” structure and fiscal outlays. Noting the United States has been the largest donor to UNRWA, it also chided other countries for not providing a larger share of the agency’s costs.

In response to the US move, UNRWA stressed its “deep regret and disappointment” and expressed surprise in light of understandings it reached with the US in December 2017 on future funding.

“We reject in the strongest possible terms the criticism that UNRWA’s schools, health centers, and emergency assistance programs are ‘irredeemably flawed,'” said spokesman Chris Gunness in a statement, noting the plaudits UNRWA has received for its work from other countries and international organizations.

He said the agency would now move forward with “even greater determination and engagement” to raise funds from current and new donor states to make up for the US defunding.

“We will continue to provide high quality services and assistance to over 5.4 [million] Palestine refugees in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria,” he said.

While lamenting the Trump administration’s decision, Gunness noted the “much valued contribution” to UNRWA’s activities the US has made as its “largest and most generous donor.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that UNRWA has his “full confidence,” calling on “other countries to help fill the remaining financial gap, so that UNRWA can continue to provide this vital assistance.”

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness at the 2014 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, Sophia University, Tokyo, June 9-10, 2014. (United Nations/John Gillespie/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a written statement earlier, the State Department said that the US “will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”

“The fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years – tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries – is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years,” the statement said, a reference to the fact that the agency grants refugee status to all the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees, something not granted by the UN to refugees from any other places.

However, the statement said the US would look for other ways to aid the Palestinians.

“We are very mindful of and deeply concerned regarding the impact upon innocent Palestinians, especially school children, of the failure of UNRWA and key members of the regional and international donor community to reform and reset the UNRWA way of doing business,” it said, adding that “Palestinians, wherever they live, deserve better than an endlessly crisis-driven service provision model. They deserve to be able to plan for the future.”

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

The US announcement was met with fury by top Palestinian officials, with a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas saying it constituted a “flagrant assault” against all Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets US President Donald Trump In the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (Fadi Arouri, Xinhua Pool via AP)

Reports had circulated throughout the week that the US was planning the move.

The US supplies nearly 30 percent of the total budget of the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides health care, 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.

Ahead of the announcement, Israel signaled its support for the move.

“Israel supports the move because UNWRA is one of the main problems perpetuating the conflict,” Hadashot news quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office as saying on Friday evening.

A senior Israeli official told Channel 10 TV that Israel supports providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians, but not through UNWRA.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the US would also move ahead with a previously reported plan to remove the refugee status from millions of Palestinians around the world — recognizing only several hundred thousand instead of the 5 million claimed by Palestinians.

There was no explicit call for this in the State Department statement, however, beyond the criticisms of “UNWRA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”

A Palestinian sits on sacks of flour while he waits to receive food aid from the UN food distribution center in the Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, on January 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The “right of return” is one of the key core issues of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim that 5 million people — tens of thousands of surviving original refugees from what is today’s Israel, and their millions of descendants — have a “right of return.” Israel rejects the demand, saying that it represents a bid by the Palestinians to destroy Israel by weight of numbers.

It says there is no justification for UNRWA’s unique criteria, by which all subsequent generations of descendants of the original refugees are also designated as having refugee status, including those born elsewhere and/or holding citizenship elsewhere; such a designation does not apply to the world’s other refugee populations.

Israel’s population is almost 9 million, some three-quarters of whom are Jewish. An influx of millions would mean Israel could no longer be a Jewish-majority state.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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