Ex-UN envoys urge US to restore Palestinian refugee funds

Former US ambassadors to the UN called on the Trump administration to restore funding to the UN agency that provides aid to so-called Palestinian refugees.

By: AP and World Israel News Staff

Seven former American ambassadors to the United Nations called on the Trump administration Monday to restore funding to the UN agency that provides aid to so-called Palestinian refugees.

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the ex-envoys from both Republican and Democratic administrations claimed withholding funds from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) would have national security implications for US partners in the region, including Israel and Jordan.

However, Israel has supported the move.

Speaking in January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he completely agrees with President Donald Trump’s “sharp criticism of UNRWA” and his decision to cut the US funding to the body.

“UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem. It also perpetuates the narrative of the right-of-return, as it were, in order to eliminate the state of Israel; therefore, UNRWA needs to pass from the world,” Netanyahu stated

“This is an agency that was established 70 years ago, only for Palestinian refugees, at a time when the UNHCR (UN refugee agency) deals with global refugee problems. Of course this creates a situation in which there are great-grandchildren of refugees, who are not refugees but who are cared for by UNRWA, and another 70 years will pass and those great-grandchildren will have great-grandchildren and therefore, this absurdity needs to stop,” the Israeli premier explained.

Netanyahu offered a proposal: “UNRWA support funds need to be gradually shifted to the UNHCR, with clear criteria for supporting genuine refugees, not fictitious refugees as happens today under UNRWA.”

“I have brought this position to the attention of the US. This is how to rid the world of UNRWA and deal with genuine refugee problems, to the extent that such remain,” he concluded.

UNRWA faces the consequences

UNRWA is facing a major budget shortfall due in part to the suspension of US assistance. The UN says UNWRA needs $250 million without which it will be forced to severely curtail programs to provide services — from food assistance and medical care to sanitation — for 5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the Jude and Samaria area, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

“This financial gap puts into question the ability of UNRWA to continue to deliver education and health care services to millions of people, and has national security ramifications for our closest allies, including Israel and Jordan,” the former ambassadors said in the letter, which was also sent to the current US envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

“We urge you to restore US funding to help fill this gap,” said the envoys, including Thomas Pickering and Edward Perkins, who served under President George H.W. Bush; Madeleine Albright and Bill Richardson, who served under President Bill Clinton; John Negroponte, who served under President George W. Bush; and Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who served under President Barack Obama.

The US has been the top donor to the agency and last year provided $364 million. But earlier this year, the Trump administration announced that it was withholding more than half its initial installment of $125 million. The rest of that, along with additional payments, are on hold until the agency implements structural reforms.

UNWRA director Pierre Krahenbuhl said at an emergency donors’ conference last week that the US cuts, along with other shortfalls, are endangering food assistance in Gaza and medical clinics spread among the five areas, while about 500,000 children may not be able to start the school year.

Palestinian Refugees’ Unique Status and Legacy

UNRWA was founded in 1949 following Israel’s War of Independence and is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states.

The Palestinians have a unique definition of “refugee” that ignores the grant of citizenship by third party nations and permits them to pass the status on to succeeding generations, in contrast to the definition of refugee status for every other refugee population in the world. With this unique and expansive definition, UNRWA and the Palestinians grossly inflate the number of Palestinian refugees in the world.

For instance, the vast majority of the “refugees” in Jordan, more than two million, are citizens of Jordan who identify as Palestinian.

Israel has argued for years that the UN and the Palestinians are working to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem and oppose any attempt to seek a solution.

Furthermore, the Palestinians’ status as refugees ensures an endless flow of international aid and has other financial ramifications.

A so-called Palestinian refugee receives quadruple the amount of aid that a Syrian, Iraqi or African refugee receives from the United Nations.

A study released in September shows that in 2016 UNRWA, which provides assistance solely to Palestinians, spent an average of $246 for each of the 5.3 million Palestinians it defines as refugees, while the UNHCR spent only a quarter of that, $58 per refugee, on non-Palestinians.