US cuts funding for Palestinian refugees

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right), listens to Kuwait’s Parliament Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim, during a conference on Jerusalem at the Al-Azhar Conference Center, in Cairo, Egypt on Jan 17. (AP)

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories, Jan 17, (AFP): The UN agency for Palestinian refugees warned Wednesday it faced its worst funding crisis ever after the White House froze tens of millions of dollars in contributions, a move Palestinian leaders decried as cruel and blatantly biased.

The agency provides Palestinian refugees and their descendants across the Middle East with services including schools and medical care, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long accused it of hostility toward Israel and called for its closure. Some five million Palestinians are eligible for its services.

On Tuesday, the United States held back $65 million that had been destined for the agency, two weeks after President Donald Trump threatened future payments. The United States is the largest contributor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

“The US has announced it will contribute $60 million to the programme budget. There is for the moment no other indication of possible funding,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told AFP. “This dramatically reduced contribution results in the most severe funding crisis in the history of the agency.” Senior Palestinian officials reacted with outrage to what they see as another move against them by Trump’s White House following his declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said the freeze amounted to “cruelty” toward an “innocent and vulnerable population.”

The Palestinian envoy to Washington, Husam Zomlot, said: “Palestinian refugees and children’s access to basic humanitarian services, such as food, health care and education, is not a bargaining chip but a US and international obligation.” Palestinian officials also accused Trump of chipping away at issues long considered up for negotiation as part of a comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the status of Jerusalem and the plight of refugees. Around 500 people protested in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday against the freeze. The funding freeze comes with relations between the Palestinians and Washington already on the brink.

On Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas denounced Trump’s peace efforts as the “slap of the century,” while Palestinian leaders have threatened to suspend their recognition of Israel.

US State Department officials insisted the decision to freeze the funding was taken not to pressure Palestinian leaders but to encourage other countries to help pay for and reform UNRWA. But the call came after a behind-thescenes tussle between hawks who want to cut all aid to Palestinians and officials concerned about the humanitarian and diplomatic fallout. The State Department said $60 million of what had been a planned $125 million package would go through to keep the agency running, but the rest will be withheld for now.

UNRWA chief Pierre Krahenbuhl expressed alarm and immediately called on other UN members to contribute. “At stake is the access of 525,000 boys and girls in 700 UNRWA schools, and their future,” he said in a statement Krahenbuhl said the $60 million would keep schools and hospitals open for now, but noted that it was dramatically less than the $350 million Washington paid during 2017. The State Department’s position raised scepticism in the light of tweets sent by Trump on Jan 2, at the time when the $125 million contribution had been due to be paid.

“We pay the Palestinians Hundred of Millions of Dollars a year and get no appreciation or respect,” Trump said. “They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel,” he protested, adding: “Why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?” Following Trump’s outburst, it was reported that his ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had been pushing for a complete end to US support for UNRWA.

But voluntary payments from the United States are the biggest single source of funding for the agency, and other US officials opposed an immediate and total suspension. Still, even as US officials said the decision was not aimed at the Palestinians but intended to provoke UN reform, Israel welcomed it as a victory. Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon alleged the agency misuses aid and “supports anti-Israel propaganda, perpetuates the plight of Palestinian refugees and encourages hate.” Netanyahu said during a trip to India that “this is the first time that UNRWA is being challenged,” Israeli media reported. “For 70 years, this organisation has been perpetuating the situation of Palestinian refugees and the narrative of the abolition of Zionism.

It’s the first time that all of that has been challenged.” But many analysts, including Israelis, warn that closing or crippling the agency without an effective replacement could lead to further poverty and perhaps violence. Netanyahu said “there is always a certain amount of risk” with such decisions. UNRWA has provided health care, emergency aid and schooling to Palestinians since 1950. It was formed in the wake of Israel’s creation in 1948 and the war surrounding it, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were either forced from their homes or fled.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “very concerned” by reports of the freeze. “UNRWA is not a Palestinian institution, but a UN institution,” he said.

The Arab League chief charged Wednesday that a US decision to freeze crucial funding for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees was aimed at wiping out the whole issue. “This decision affects the education and health of Palestinians and aims to eradicate the question of refugees,” Ahmed Aboul Gheit said at a conference in Cairo on the disputed city of Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday he believed the US embassy in Israel could be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem within a year, reports said, contradicting statements from US officials. “The embassy is going to be moved to Jerusalem faster than you think, certainly within a year,” Netanyahu told journalists accompanying him on an official trip to India, according to Israeli media. US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Dec 6 and pledged to move the embassy to the disputed city, deeply angering the Palestinians and drawing global condemnation.

However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in December that the relocation of the embassy would probably not take place for at least two years. Trump’s announcement led to unrest in the Palestinian territories. Seventeen Palestinians have been killed since Trump’s announcement, most of them in clashes with Israeli forces.

One Israeli has been killed in that time. Palestinian leaders have threatened to suspend their recognition of Israel in response to Trump’s moves. Jerusalem’s status is perhaps the most sensitive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel sees the entire city as its capital, while the Palestinians want the eastern sector as the capital of their future state. Israel occupied east Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War. It later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community. No countries currently have their embassies in Jerusalem, instead keeping them in the Israeli commercial capital Tel Aviv.

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