UNRWA chief rejects US criticism amid agency’s financial collapse

According to the head of the Palestinians’ U.N. agency, the Palestinian problem cannot be solved by eliminating UNRWA.

By: AP and World Israel News Staff

Facing a financial crisis after the United States cut funding, the head of the Palestinians’ U.N. agency (UNRWA) claims the Palestinian issue will persist whether there’s money or not to run the agency.

While UNRWA got some good news Wednesday with new pledges of $118 million, it remains $68 million in the hole this year. And in January it will face the problem of trying to find funding for next year’s budget of about $1.2 billion.

“Of course, we worry about it,” UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl said. “The key question for next year will be whether these countries that have shown themselves so generous in supporting us this year … are they prepared to sustain those contributions?”

As Krahenbuhl sat down for an interview with The Associated Press about the agency’s future on Thursday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told the U.N. General Assembly that UNRWA is critical to millions of his people but U.S. officials “just want to obliterate it altogether.”

UNRWA was established in 1948 after Arab nations attacked Israel during its war of independence. At that time, the Arabs claimed that 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes.

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Today, UNRWA provides services to 5.3 million Palestinians, the majority of whom are descendants of Arabs that left Israel after the state was established. Its aid recipients live in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Judea and Samaria, and Gaza.

UNRWA considers these descendants “refugees,” regardless of their actual citizenship or immigration status. For example, around two million Jordanian citizens claim status as “Palestinian refugees.”

While UNRWA serves only Palestinians, the UN’s other refugee agency (UNHCR) provides services to the millions of refugees from other nations.

A study released in 2018 shows that in 2016 UNRWA spent an average of $246 for each of the 5.3 million Palestinians it serves, while the UNHCR spent only $58 per refugee on non-Palestinians.

Earlier this year, reports of a classified Obama-era report surfaced in which the number of actual Palestinian refugees worldwide was estimated at only 30,000, a far cry from the 5.3 million UNRWA classifies as refugees.

Krahenbuhl said the sudden U.S. funding cut of $300 million early this year and the Aug. 31 announcement by the Trump administration that it was ending decades of funding for UNRWA were “a matter of deep regret and sincere disappointment” since the U.S. was historically the agency’s largest donor, paying nearly 30 percent of its budget.

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In announcing the end to funding, the U.S. called UNRWA an “irredeemably flawed operation.” The Trump administration’s top Mideast adviser, Jared Kushner, went further in an internal email published by Foreign Policy magazine.

He was quoted as calling for a “sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA” and saying the agency “perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”

Israel, which praised the end of U.S. funding, accuses UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The agency faces persistent criticism for permitting a curriculum that promotes anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel in its classrooms and for assisting the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza with an iron fist.

Krahenbuhl rejected all the allegations and touted the quality of UNRWA schools, saying it was a touch-and-go decision to open them for the new school term that started in August.

“The fact that donors came forward — Gulf countries, Asia, Europe, Canada and others, helped us and allowed us to open the school year,” he said.

The Palestinians fear the U.S. is putting pressure on host countries to absorb their refugee populations and eliminate the issue from future peace negotiations.

Kushner and Jason Greenblatt are preparing a highly-anticipated peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians.

Krahenbuhl reiterated that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly supports a two-state solution and has said there is “no Plan B.” He stressed that a peace deal “has to be inclusive of the concerns and aspirations of Palestinian refugees.”