UNRWA warns US funding cut threatens regional security, Palestinian dignity
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UNRWA warns US funding cut threatens regional security, Palestinian dignity

Head of aid agency calls for global fundraising effort; Washington insists move not a punishment

Palestinian men load a horse-pulled cart with food donations outside the United Nations food distribution center in Gaza City on January 15, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)
Palestinian men load a horse-pulled cart with food donations outside the United Nations food distribution center in Gaza City on January 15, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

The UN relief agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) on Tuesday said a US decision to reduce its funds threatened regional security, as well as “the dignity and human security of millions” of Palestinians.

“Given the long, trusted, and historic relationship between the United States and UNRWA, this reduced contribution threatens one of the most successful and innovative human development endeavors in the Middle-East,” UNRWA chief Pierre Krähenbühl said in a statement.

“The reduced contribution also impacts regional security at a time when the Middle East faces multiple risks and threats, notably that of further radicalization.” he said.

The State Department on Tuesday notified the UN Relief and Works Agency by letter that the US was withholding $65 million of a planned $125 million funding installment to the body. The letter also made clear that additional US donations will be contingent on major changes by UNRWA, which has been heavily criticized by Israel.

“We would like to see some reforms be made,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, adding that changes were needed both to the way the agency operates and is funded. “This is not aimed at punishing anyone.”

Krähenbühl called for a global fundraising effort to make up for the loss of US support.

“At stake is the access of 525,000 boys and girls in 700 UNRWA schools, and their future,” he said. “At stake is the dignity and human security of millions of Palestine refugees, in need of emergency food assistance and other support in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“At stake is the access of refugees to primary health care, including pre-natal care and other life-saving services. At stake are the rights and dignity of an entire community.”

Pierre Krahenbuhl, director of the UN agency that supports Palestinians, during an interview in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, March 12, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was not aware of the decision, but warned that UNRWA provides “vital services.”

“I am very concerned and I strongly hope that in the end it will be possible for the United States to maintain the funding of UNRWA in which the US has a very important share,” he told reporters at the UN.

The U.S. donated $355 million to UNWRA in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution in this year, with the first installment to have been sent this month. But after a highly critical Jan. 2 tweet from Trump on aid to the Palestinians, the State Department opted to wait for a formal policy decision before sending its first installment.

Trump’s tweet expressed frustration over the lack of progress in his attempts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and he pointed the 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?”

Nauert said the United States believes there needs to be more “burden-sharing,” a regular Trump complaint about multilateral organizations dependent on significant contributions of US cash.

“We don’t believe that taking care of other nations and other people have to be solely the United States’ responsibility,” she said.

US State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks to reporters during a press conference in Washington, D.C. on July 27, 2017 (screen capture)

The US plan to withhold some, but not all, of the money was backed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who offered it as a compromise to demands for more drastic measures by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, officials said.

Haley wanted a complete cutoff in US money until the Palestinians resumed peace talks with Israel that have been frozen for years. But Tillerson, Mattis and others argued that ending all assistance would exacerbate instability in the Mideast, notably in Jordan, a host to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and a crucial US strategic partner.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the US move.

“The US Administration seems to be following Netanyahu’s instructions to gradually dismantle the one agency that was established by the international community to protect the rights of the Palestinian refugees and provide them with essential services,” said Hanan Ashrawi on behalf of the PLO Executive Committee.

“This administration is thereby targeting the most vulnerable segment of the Palestinian people and depriving the refugees of the right to education, health, shelter and a dignified life,” she said.

The PLO official too said that shaving $65 million off the US donation would destabilize the region.

PLO official Hanan Ashrawi (Ahmad Gharabli/Flash90)

“It is also creating conditions that will generate further instability throughout the region and will demonstrate that it has no compunction in targeting the innocent,” she said, adding that, “Once again the US Administration proves its complicity with the Israeli occupation.”

Ashrawi also met with representatives of Germany and Norway, encouraging them and other European nations to work towards a two-state solution, recognize a Palestinian state, and increase their country’s contributions to UNRWA, the Palestinian Authority’s official news station Wafa reported.

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 a possible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The US decision was applauded on Tuesday by Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and some ministers.

Israeli envoy Danny Danon argued that UNRWA misuses humanitarian aid to support propaganda against the Jewish state and perpetuate the Palestinians’ plight.

Danny Danon speaks to the media prior to the Security Council meeting on the Middle East on May 11, 2017. (Mark Garten/UN Photo)

“It is time for this absurdity to end and for humanitarian funds to be directed towards their intended purpose: the welfare of refugees,” Danon said in a statement.

The US donated $355 million to UNWRA in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution in this year, with the first installment to have been sent this month. But after a highly critical Jan. 2 tweet from Trump on aid to the Palestinians, the State Department had opted to wait for a formal policy decision before sending its first installment.

Trump’s tweet expressed frustration over the lack of progress in his attempts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and he pointed the 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?”

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