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US curtails UNRWA funding


JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the US announcement that it would halt all funding to the UN agency that aids Palestinians a “welcome and important change.”

Netanyahu made the statement on Sunday, Sept. 2, more than a day after US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that: “The US will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”

“When we made a US contribution of $60 million in January, we made it clear that the US was no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs that we had assumed for many years,” the statement said.

The statement also noted that the Trump administration takes issue with the agency’s definition of a Palestinian refugee, which gives refugee status also to the millions of descendants of the original Palestinian refugees.

“Beyond the budget gap itself and failure to mobilize adequate and appropriate burden sharing, 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.

It noted that the US will look for other ways to assist the Palestinians, especially the children who “are part of the future of the Middle East.”

UNRWA provides relief to some five million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Uniquely among refugee agencies, it identifies multiple generations of descent as refugees; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees extends such recognition only to the second generation.

The Trump administration reportedly wants to slash the number of Palestinians eligible for UNRWA assistance to 500,000.

Netanyahu noted on Sunday in Yad Binyamin that “uprooted people come to us from all kinds of countries. Holocaust survivors who were torn from their land. From communities that they had lived in, in Lithuania — for 500 years, from Poland — for 1,000 years. They were uprooted, survived and came here.

“Did we leave them as refugees? No, we absorbed them, from Arab countries as well. They were uprooted, from the same war, the war of liberation. Hundreds of thousands of Jews who came here as refugees without anything; they left all their property behind.”

He continued: “This is not what is happening with the Palestinians. There they created a unique institution, 70 years ago, not to absorb the refugees but to perpetuate them.”

He said the withheld funds “must be taken and used to genuinely help rehabilitate the refugees, the true number of which is much smaller than the number reported by UNRWA.”

The US released $60 million to UNRWA in January, but withheld another $65 million that it had been pledged to contribute, saying that it expected other countries to donate more in order to prevent the imbalance that made the US the agency’s single largest donor.

The US donated $370 million to the agency in 2017 and $355 million in 2016.

The Israel Policy Forum said on Sept. 1 in a statement that the “UN Relief and Works Agency is a deeply flawed organization, but it is also responsible for the education, healthcare, and social services of millions of Palestinians in 59 refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

“Because of the Trump administration’s decision to end all US funding of the organization, UNRWA is in danger of collapsing, which will result in chaos and a security nightmare for Israel. There is no other organization that can step in overnight and assume all of UNRWA’s responsibilities, and overseeing UNRWA’s death without a backup plan in place is grossly irresponsible.”

The Palestinian ambassador to Washington Husam Zomlot said in a statement that by cutting aid to the UNRWA the US is “reneging on its international commitment and responsibility. It’s not up to the US administration to define the status of Palestinian refugees.

“The only status the US can define is its own role in peacemaking in the region.

“By endorsing the most extreme Israeli narrative on all issues including the rights of more than five million Palestinian refugees, the US administration has lost its status as peacemaker and is damaging not only an already volatile situation but the prospects for future peace in the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, Germany has announced it will increase its funding to the agency “substantially,” to help make up the loss of funds from the US this year.

But it won’t be enough to keep the UNRWA afloat, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a letter last week to other EU member countries. He is asking them to raise their contributions as well.

Reportedly the agency had an annual budget of $1.1 million this year, up from about $700 million in 2014.

In 2017, the UNRWA listed the US as its top contributor, with more than $364 million. Germany was ranked third, with more than $76 million. Agency director Pierre Krahenbuhl said on Aug. 30 that $200 million is needed before the end of 2018, particularly in order to keep schools open.

In his letter to the EU, Maas said the UNRWA was key to regional stability. He did not specify how much more Germany would contribute.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said last week that his country will hold a fundraiser for the agency at UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 27.

Germany has strong economic, scientific and academic ties to Israel, and subsidizes the cost of German submarines for the Israeli navy. According to a Reuters report, bilateral trade in goods and services came to $5.5 billion in 2016.


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