Democracy Dies in Darkness

Middle East

Head of Palestinian refugee agency rejects U.S. criticism, says his organization will survive

September 3, 2018 at 8:20 AM

Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner general of the U.N. agency supporting Palestinian refugees, attends a ceremony at a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday. (Raad Adayleh/AP)

JERUSALEM —The United States ended its funding for the U.N. agency supporting Palestinian refugees for political reasons related to the peace process, its commissioner said Monday, but he expressed confidence that a $200 million shortfall would somehow be fixed.

Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), also rejected U.S. criticism that the organization perpetuated the refu­gee problem by creating an ever-expanding population of beneficiaries.

Since the agency’s establishment in 1949, the United States has been the largest donor to the UNRWA, which originally offered humanitarian support to some 750,000 Palestinians, the initial number of people displaced when Israel was created in 1948.

Today, the $1.2 billion agency provides education, health care, food support and other essentials to some 5.3 million Palestinians, descendants of the original refugees, now living in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. 

In its statement ending the funding, the State Department criticized the “expanding community of entitled beneficiaries” served by the program.

“We have to set the record straight. It is just false and wrong to describe things in that manner,” Krähenbühl said by telephone from his office in Amman, Jordan. “There is only one thing that perpetuates the situation of refugees, including Palestinian refugees, and that is the extraordinary failure of the international community to bring about a just and fair and inclusive solution to the conflict.”

He added that the UNRWA’s mandate is no different from the broader U.N. refugee agency, which also deals with “refugees, their children and their grandchildren.” 

Related: [U.S. ends aid to United Nations agency supporting Palestinian refugees]

The U.S. withdrawal leaves the UNRWA with a $446 million shortfall, Krähenbühl said. The deficit has already been partially filled by the European Union, Japan, India, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, he said, indicating that the agency will survive the U.S. pullback, at least for now.

“The situation still remains critical, but I hope we will overcome the remaining $200 million debt,” he said.

Krähenbühl said that the agency is open to criticism but that since Washington’s initial announcement about reducing its contribution to the UNRWA in January, he has never been given a “consolidated position on the reasons for it.” 

“This has led me to believe that this decision was made for political reasons as part of the tensions between the U.S. and Palestinian Authority. There is nothing that UNRWA can do about this,” Krähenbühl said.

The Trump administration has been preparing to present its own peace plan to solve the long-
running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but its team of special envoys has been struggling to meet with members of President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinians say President Trump’s December announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his decision to upend decades of U.S. policy by moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has exposed the administration’s pro-Israel bias and made it unsuitable to act as a mediator. 

“This is the art of negotiation? His negotiations have put me in a position where I have nothing to lose. Why should I talk to them?” Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in an interview Friday. “They have disqualified themselves from any role in the peace process and destroyed all prospects of peace.” 

Related: [Palestinians slam U.S. decision to cut aid as U.N. pleads for new donors]

According to a report Monday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Trump’s peace team, which includes his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, laid out for Abbas a peace plan that would create a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation. 

“I was asked if I believe in a federation with Jordan,” Abbas told Israeli lawmakers at a recent meeting about a talk he held with Kushner and Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt. “I answered: Yes, I want a confederation with Jordan and Israel. I have asked the Israelis if they would agree to such an offer.”

Abbas also said he believed that the “U.S. wants to completely sabotage UNRWA.”

In Israel, the U.S. position on the UNRWA has been welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, challenging the long-held position of the country’s security establishment, which worries that weakening the aid agency could have negative consequences on the stability of the region. 

Speaking at the opening of the new school year Sunday, Netanyahu highlighted Israel’s success in absorbing Jewish immigrants from all over the world. He juxtaposed this with the Palestinian refugee issue, saying they had “created a unique institution, 70 years ago, not to absorb the refugees but to perpetuate them.” 

“The U.S. has done a very important thing by halting the financing for the refugee-perpetuation agency known as UNRWA. It is finally beginning to resolve the problem,” Netanyahu said. “The 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.”

Read more:

Related: Trump recognizes Jerusalem as capital of Israel in reversal of longtime U.S. policy

Related: Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.

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