Palestinians Kick As US Ends Funding For UN Agency

Abbas Calls For Mideast Peace Conference In Rare UN Speech
President of Palestine and Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a United Nations Security Council concerning meeting concerning issues in the Middle East, at UN headquarters, February 20, 2018 in New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP

 

Palestinians reacted angrily Saturday to a US decision to end all funding for the UN agency that assists three million needy refugees, seeing it as a new policy shift aimed at undermining their cause.

Washington, which until last year was by far the biggest contributor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees, announced on Friday that it would no longer make any contributions to the “irredeemably flawed operation.”

President Donald Trump’s administration has backed Israel in accusing the nearly 70-year-old agency of perpetuating the Middle East conflict by maintaining the idea that many Palestinians are refugees with a right to return to homes in what is now Israel, something they both oppose.

But to Palestinians, the right of return for the hundreds of thousands who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s creation is a central plank of their cause.

Its calling into question by Trump follows his December recognition of the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and axing of more than $200 million in bilateral aid for Gaza and the West Bank.

The new policy on Jerusalem overturned decades of precedent and prompted the Palestinian leadership to break off relations with the White House.

 ‘Cruel and irresponsible’ 

Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashwrawi described the latest US move as “cruel and irresponsible”.

“The Palestinian refugees are already the victims who have lost their homes, livelihoods and security as a result of the creation of the state of Israel,” she said.

“Once again, they are being victimised by the US administration in support of Israel’s decades-long military occupation and impunity.”

UNRWA was already facing a financial crisis after Trump announced a $300 million funding freeze in January but now faces the threat of major closures to its network of schools and health centres.

In the impoverished Gaza Strip, where most children learn in UNRWA schools, the US decision has raised fears for their future education.

“If they stop the aid completely it would have a major effect on our children,” said Abu Mohammed Huweila, 40, from the Jabalia camp in northern Gaza.

Huweila, whose nine children have all attended UNRWA, called the move “an unjust decision” that went against their right to education.

‘Just cause’ 

Another Gaza resident, Hisham Saqallah, 55, said the US move was “political blackmail” that would merely increase unrest.

“If they stop aid to schools, this means destroying the futures of a large number of students and throwing them into the street,” he said.

“I do not think that it can eliminate our Palestinian cause. It is a just cause. If the aid is stopped, the Palestinian struggle will continue.”

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness called the US decision “highly regrettable,” saying the organisation would “try to make up the $217 million shortfalls”.

“If not some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people on the planet may well suffer,” he told AFP.

“People are going to become more desperate and marginalised,” he said, warning of “dramatic, widespread, profound and unpredictable” consequences.

‘New approaches’ 

Jordan, which is one of just two Arab countries to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, already announced plans to organise an emergency fund-raising conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next month.

Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the September 27 event aimed to secure alternative funding and “reaffirm that UNRWA is an organisation created by the UN General Assembly, with a clear and particular role, and this role must continue”.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US would “intensify dialogue with the United Nations, host governments and international stakeholders about new models and new approaches” for assisting needy Palestinians.

But Hugh Lovatt, Israel Palestine analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations, said Washington would find scant support for its push for an alternative aid conduit.

He said it was an attempt to “unilaterally take the Palestinian right of return off the table”.

“But US actions are misguided, dangerous, and won’t work,” he said, since “neither Lebanon or Jordan can be expected to play along.”

And even if the US succeeds in eliminating UNRWA and changing the definition of the world’s 5.3 million registered Palestinian refugees, “Palestinian refugees will remain, and will keep demanding their right of return.”

AFP

UN Palestinian Agency To Cut 250 Jobs As US Funding Reduces

Palestinians help an employee of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA who reportedly tried to set himself on fire as fellow employees take part in a protest against job cuts announced by the agency, at its headquarters in Gaza City July 25, 2018. SAID KHATIB / AFP

 

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees announced Wednesday it was cutting more than 250 jobs in the Palestinian territories after the United States held back hundreds of millions in aid.

In total, 154 employees in the occupied West Bank and 113 in the Gaza Strip will be let go, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said in a statement.

More than 500 other full-time staff will be offered part-time contracts, the statement added.

The job cuts were the first since the US announced it would only provide the agency with $60 million this year, down from $360 million the previous year.

Gunness’s statement said the US cut represented an “existential threat” to UNRWA, which had been trying to raise the money from other donors.

Amal al-Batsh, deputy head of UNRWA’s staff union, condemned the cuts.

“The decisions are unfair and will adversely affect employees and their families,” she told AFP.

Hundreds of people rallied outside UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City to protest against the decision to axe jobs, as the union called for a sit-in.

One man tried to set himself on fire but fellow protesters rushed to help him and put out the flames, an AFP journalist at the scene said.

The UNRWA staff union also called for a general strike by employees to be held on Thursday in Gaza.

The agency provides services to more than three million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East and employs more than 20,000 people, the vast majority Palestinians.

Gunness’s statement said UNRWA was seeking to “protect core services, including education, health and relief,” as well as ensure the schools they run in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere open on time after the summer holidays.

“The decision of the US to cut $300 million in funding to UNRWA this year has been described by our commissioner general as an existential threat to UNRWA,” it said.

“As we continue to pursue every avenue of support to overcome a severe financial crisis, UNRWA, its dedicated staff and the refugees have only one option: to face up to this situation together and preserve the most important work we do.”

Trump threats 

In January, US President Donald Trump linked the cutting of Palestinian aid to the decision by president Mahmud Abbas to refuse to talk with his administration.

The Palestinian leadership froze ties with the White House after it recognised the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and accuses Trump’s administration of blatant bias in favour of Israel.

“We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” Trump tweeted on January 2, shortly before the funding freeze was announced.

“With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”.

UNRWA was set up after the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel, which saw more than 700,000 Palestinians flee or be expelled from their homes.

Israeli politicians have long criticised the agency’s existence, arguing it perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

UNRWA leadership and Palestinian officials say its presence is necessary until a permanent solution can be found for the refugees.

AFP