US halts funding for Palestinian refugee agency

The US also announced last week that it was canceling more than $200 million in bilateral aid to Palestinians.
Saturday 01/09/2018
A Palestinian man stands in front of the emblem of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) outside the agency's offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP)
A Palestinian man stands in front of the emblem of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) outside the agency's offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP)

The United States announced it was halting funding for the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees Friday after declaring the organisation was “irredeemably flawed.”

Washington has consistently been the UN Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) largest donor but is “no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Nauert said there would be no additional contributions beyond a $60 million dollar payment made by the US in January.

“The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation,” Nauert added.

UNRWA supports some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees and provides schooling for 526,000 children in the Palestinian territories as well as in camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Responding to Nauert’s comments, a spokesperson for the UN agency Chris Gunness tweeted, "We reject in the strongest possible terms the criticism that Unrwa's schools, health centres, and emergency assistance programs are 'irredeemably flawed'."

Fears over funding have already led to warnings from UNRWA that it may have to permanently shut all the 711 schools that it runs after recent temporary closures.

European and Arab countries pledged to protect UNRWA, with Germany promising a significant increase in financial backing. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Reuters in advance of the announcement, “The loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction.”

However, Maas cautioned that the added German funds would not be enough to cover a $217 million deficit left by the US withdrawal, and urged the European Union and other states to work towards “a sustainable finance basis for the organisation.”

The United States also announced last week that it was canceling more than $200 million in bilateral aid to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Nauert said the US would “intensify dialogue with the United Nations, host governments, and international stakeholders about new models and new approaches” to help alleviate any impact on Palestinian children.

“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,” she added.

The Palestinian ambassador to Washington, Hossam Zomlot, previously said that the US would be guilty of “reneging on its international commitment and responsibility” if reports that funding was to end were confirmed.

“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,” Zomlot said in a statement to AFP.

Israel and the United States have both accused UNRWA of perpetuating the Israel-Palestinian crisis by maintaining the idea of the right of return — that Palestinians will be able to return to the homes from which they fled.

Both governments say the UN as a whole is biased against Israel, pointing to its long history of votes in the General Assembly against the Jewish state.

The Palestinian Authority has refused all contact with Washington since US President Donald Trump announced late last year that he was unilaterally recognising Jerusalem — which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians — as the Israeli capital, making the US one of very few countries to do so.

The Palestinians were further enraged by the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, which was attended by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has been tasked with trying to revive the essentially moribund Middle East peace process.

Kushner has publicly questioned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ willingness to make concessions to secure peace.

Palestinian officials have countered that the Trump administration has come up with “nothing of substance” in trying to end the decades-old conflict despite the US president’s stated confidence in securing what he calls “the ultimate deal.”

(Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)