US preparing to end funding to main Palestinian aid agency

The US will reportedly call for a drastic reduction in the number of Palestinian refugees recognised by the UN.
Friday 31/08/2018
A Palestinian girl waits at the entrance of an UNRWA school before attending first day of class in Gaza City, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. (AP)
A Palestinian girl waits at the entrance of an UNRWA school before attending first day of class in Gaza City, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. (AP)

TUNIS – The United States is preparing to withdraw all remaining funding from the United Nations’ main Palestinian aid programme as it seeks to dramatically recalculate the number of those classed as refugees.

Further to the $200 million in spending cut from its development agency USAID last week, the Trump administration is reportedly preparing to announce the withdrawal of all US funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and is preparing to lobby other countries to do likewise.

According to an unnamed official quoted by the Washington Post, the US will call for a drastic reduction in the number of refugees recognised by the UN, from 5 million, including the descendents of those displaced since 1948, to the few hundred thousand who were alive at that time of the agency’s inception seven decades ago.

The move has been seen by both Israel and Palestine as a less than subtle attempt by the US to dismiss one of the historical sticking points in any peace negotiation, the right of return of all Palestinians.

Asked if the US should “get the right of return off the table” at a discussion hosted by the conservative Foundation for the Defence of Democracy on Tuesday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley concurred, saying, “I do agree with that … I absolutely think we have to look at right of return.”

Concern over the UN agency’s future comes as European and Arab countries pledge to protect UNRWA, with Germany promising a significant increase in financial backing. Speaking to Reuters about the future of the agency in the absence of US funding, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “The loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction.”

There are currently thought to be more than 5 million Palestinian refugees, spanning territory from the occupied territories to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The US currently provides around one third of the UNRWA’s $1.1bn annual budget, but earlier this year cut that commitment from $130m to $65m, insisting that the UNWRA needed to make various unspecified reforms and called on the Palestinians to renew peace talks.

Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, told The Washington Post that the Trump administration’s alignment with Israel had disqualified it from playing any future role within the peace process.

“By cutting aid, the US is violating international law,” Erekat said, arguing that the “UNRWA is not a Palestinian agency” but was established by the United Nations, “and there is an international obligation to assist and support it until all the problems of the Palestinian refugees are solved.”

Erekat added: “Some may argue that it is US taxpayers’ money and that it is up to them how it is spent. But by the same token, who gave Trump the damn right to steal my land and my capital and my future and my aspirations and my freedom by deciding to blindly support the occupying power called Israel?”

Erekat also suggested that the end of UNRWA would have consequences wherever Palestinian refugees are massed, principally by increasing the risk of radicalisation and possible recruitment by groups such as the Islamic State. 

Speaking to The Guardian, Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general and former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said closing UNRWA “in the long run, no question, is the right move to do.”

“Reduction in funds is one way to shut up and close UNRWA. How do you do it? By saying, ‘UNRWA, you don’t exist any more, with all due respect.’”

The issue of Palestinian refugees, and of those residing abroad, returning to a future Palestinian state, or being compensated, is one of the three key issues at the heart of the Middle East peace process, with the others being the status of Jerusalem and the borders of that state.

In December 2017, US president Donald Trump unilaterally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, sparking outrage across the Arab and Muslim world.