The US accuses UNRWA of perpetuating the conflict by preventing refugee resettlement. The agency supports 5.4 million people. About 70 per cent of Gazans depends on aid. The US decision also threatens Jordan and Lebanon. UNRWA spokesperson rejects accusations, says agency’s mandate comes from the General Assembly. The problem is that the parties have failed to reach a peace agreement and a settlement for the refugees.
New York (AsiaNews) – The United States will no longer finance UNRWA, the UN agency that deals with Palestinian refugees. At the beginning of the year, the US contribution had already dropped from US$ 350 million to 60 million.
The State Department announcement last Thursday sparked many reactions: praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and concerns from the European Union, activists and the Israeli military.
According to some analysts, the move is directed at Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, who has refused to talk with the US government since the Trump administration decided to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
Set up in 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) supports about 5.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, by funding schools and hospitals, and providing food aid.
According to the United States, the agency perpetuates the conflict and the refugee status of the Palestinians. Praised by Premier Netanyahu, the decision has nevertheless met with opposition in Israel.
“While Netanyahu is welcoming it, it's known that the Israeli army and security forces are very much against it. The Israeli army actually has been trying to convince Netanyahu to stop this,” said Adam Keller, a spokesperson for Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace group.
For the Israeli activist, the risk is not limited to Gaza. “This could lead to more instability, not only in the Gaza Strip but also in Lebanon and Jordan. No sane person would like to see instability in Jordan. I think that this decision is the most stupid and irresponsible.”
For Keller, the European Union should step up to play a more decisive role in the Middle East and fill the economic vacuum left by the United States.
“I am afraid that there will be humanitarian consequences since 70 per cent of the Gaza population are refugees and their health, sanitation and other services are run mostly by UNRWA,” said Ran Goldstein, director of Physicians for Human Rights.
“The situation in Gaza is already on edge. I don’t understand how civilians there will be able to cope if the situation gets worse,” he explained. “On the ground, the effect is already felt: the garbage in the streets of Gaza is hardly collected and staff has been laid off.”
Combatants for Peace, an NGO that includes Arabs and Jews, slammed the US decision. "Humanitarian aid should not be subjected to any political purpose,” said Ghassan Bannoura, the group’s spokesperson.
“UNRWA plays a vital role in providing millions of Palestinian refugees with education, health and work support” and will do so “until their situation is resolved, in accordance with the UN resolution. Any aid cuts to this agency could lead to catastrophic results and violence and will not lead to peace."
UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness rejects the accusation of that his agency is perpetuating the conflict. For him, the failure lies with the parties involved in the conflict who have reached a peace agreement to solve the refugee problem.
"You cannot airbrush out of history 5.4 million people, Palestine refugees, a UN protected population. We are talking about real human beings with a humanity and a dignity which must be respected,” he said. “The refugees have languished for 70 years, many in appallingly squalid refugee camps.”
Since UNRWA’s mandate comes from the United Nations General Assembly, “no single member of the Assembly can unilaterally change our mandate,” Gunness noted.
“There are,” he added, “nearly 200 members and they voted overwhelmingly to renew our mandate – 167 in favour and just one against. So, despite the Trump administration withholding funds, our mandate remains unchanged and our commitment to it remains undiminished.”