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What Is the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees, and Will Trump Really Defund It?

Israel has called for the dismantlement of UNRWA. But it is also acutely aware that if the U.S. cuts its funding, it could trigger a humanitarian crisis that would have serious consequences for both the Palestinians and Israel

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A Palestinian girl at the Shatie refugee camp in Gaza City, 2010.
A Palestinian girl at the Shatie refugee camp in Gaza City, 2010.Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley indirectly threatened on Tuesday to withdraw U.S. support for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Asked by a journalist about continued U.S. funding for the UN agency, she stated that President Donald Trump “doesn’t want to give any additional funding until the Palestinians agree to come back to the negotiation table. The Palestinians now have to show the world they want to come to the table. As of now, they’re not coming to the table but they ask for aid.”

Though Haley didn’t refer to the UN agency by name and it is unclear if she specifically meant it or other U.S. funding for the Palestinians – and a spokesman for the agency said it hadn’t been informed by the United States of any changes in its funding policies – critics of UNRWA applauded Haley’s remarks.

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Her comments came after the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn President Donald Trump’s recognition last month of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. They also came in tandem with Trump tweets saying that “we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” and with “the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

The UN agency has been a lightning rod of controversy for decades, harshly criticized by Israel and its advocates. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went as far last June as to call for it to be “dismantled.”

But the Trump administration reportedly rejected that call, with Haley herself pledging last August to maintain the current U.S. levels of support – in keeping with the U.S. policy of supporting the critical humanitarian work the agency performs (feeding, educating and providing health care for Palestinians).

But despite Israel’s loud and frequent public criticism, many question whether it really wants to see the agency shuttered or crippled. They say it quietly needs the agency to continue shouldering the burden of tending to the critical humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians – for fear their care would spark a humanitarian crisis that would fall on Israel if it were not in place.

Even the agency’s harshest critics in Israel view its dismantling as an unrealistic goal.

What is UNRWA, and what does it do?

The agency describes its mission as providing “assistance and protection for some 5 million registered Palestine refugees” in the areas of education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict.

It receives some of its funding from the main UN budget, primarily for staff. But the bulk of its funds are “voluntary contributions” from UN member states. The agency was set up by the General Assembly in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and began operating in 1950. Since then, its mandate has been periodically renewed by the General Assembly.

On its website, it acknowledges that it is “unique in terms of its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees.”

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, January 2, 2018.Credit: LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

It also has a different criteria for refugee status. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which is responsible for every other refugee group besides Palestinians, does not automatically confer refugee status to descendants of refugees. But UNRWA grants refugee status to “descendants of fathers” who are refugees – which is why the number of Palestinians under the UNRWA mandate grows significantly from year to year.

It defines its clients as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict,” and “descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition.” The agency operates in the following areas: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

When it was created, the agency served some 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for its services.

Who funds the agency?

The United States is the largest bilateral donor to the agency since 1949. It contributed nearly $370 million in 2016 – about a quarter of the agency’s budget – followed by the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the United Kingdom.

What is Israel’s position on UNRWA?

Israeli leaders have never been fans of the UN agency. First and foremost, Israel challenges its broad definition of “refugee,” which is predicated on an assumption that the millions of Palestinians it serves are refugees waiting to return to the homeland from which they (or their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents) were banished.

But beyond what it see as support for a pro-Palestinian narrative, Israel and its advocates have charged over the years that the agency does real damage breeding incitement and hate in its educational institutions. Furthermore, that it provides aid, shelter and financial support to people and groups that Israel and other nations define as terrorists. This holds particularly true in the Gaza Strip, where Israel contends that because the UN agency shoulders so much of the educational and health care burden there, it has freed up the ruling Hamas regime to use its resources on attack tunnels and rockets that threaten Israel.

At a meeting covered by the international media last June, Netanyahu declared publicly and unequivocally what many other Israeli leaders had been saying in private for years – that the agency should be shuttered and the UN should treat the Palestinians like all other refugees.

“I told U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley that it’s time to dismantle UNRWA,” Netanyahu announced, following the news that the agency had found a cross-border tunnel designed to attack Israel running under two of its schools in the Gaza Strip. “It is time for the UN to reexamine UNRWA’s existence. UNRWA, to a great extent, by its existence and unfortunately by its actions too from time to time, perpetuates the Palestinians’ problem instead of solving it. Therefore, it is time that UNRWA be dismantled and merged with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees,” Netanyahu declared.

Why does Israel hate the agency so much and advocate for its dismantlement?

Israel’s list of grievances against the agency is lengthy and spans decades. Over the years, a regular target has been the education network, where Israelis charge that generations of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been taught to hate the Jewish state in UNRWA-funded schools and military-style summer camps that teach resistance and opposition to peace negotiations.

Workers employed by the UN agency are officially forbidden from political involvement and must remain nonpartisan. In practice, though, the organization has failed to implement that. Hamas members are known to be on the agency’s payroll, leading to charges that UNRWA indirectly supports the regime and its workers unions are under Hamas’ control.

A Palestinian man walking past a logo of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Jalazun refugee camp, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 3, 2018.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

During the 2014 Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas (and other Islamist militant groups), the UN agency was involved in controversy almost daily. It faced allegations from Israel that rocket launchers and missile stockpiles were located in its facilities; that “terror tunnels” were dug beneath them; and that its ambulances were used for military purposes.

It was during this war that the agency’s spokesman, Chris Gunness, famously broke down over the deaths of Palestinians who had been shelled while seeking shelter in a UN school. “The rights of Palestinians, even their children, are wholesale denied – and it’s appalling,” he said, before bursting into tears.

Why has Israel refrained from making a real push to dismantle UNRWA until the Trump era?

Over the years, the Israeli government has played something of a double game when it comes to the UN agency. While it has been genuinely angered at much of UNRWA’s behavior, it has quietly acknowledged that its elimination could make the situation more difficult, not easier – even if strong opposition from Arab and European countries to such a move could be overcome.

With the agency currently maintaining vital services in health care – including providing vaccines, sanitation and water supply – a drastic reduction or elimination of their services could potentially spark a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Daniel B. Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and currently a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said Israel – including the Netanyahu government – has previously put the brakes on efforts in Washington to stop its funding for the agency because of such concerns.

“On many occasions in the past, Congress has slowed or conditioned assistance to the Palestinian Authority because of incitement, refusal to come to negotiations or other valid concerns. UNRWA has also been a source of frustration because of its role in perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, rather than rehabilitating them,” Shapiro said. “But on each occasion, the Israeli government has quietly been among the most influential advocates in getting Congress eventually to release the funds. For all the legitimate frustrations, that aid serves Israeli – and U.S. – interests by helping maintain the stability of the PA and providing for the legitimate needs of Palestinian refugees. Without it, Israel’s security could be harmed by the collapse of the PA, and Israel would have to take on the burdens of providing for refugees’ needs that UNRWA currently does.

“In an honest dialogue between Israel and the Trump administration,” Shapiro added, “I would expect similar issues to be raised and for the lion’s share of that assistance to continue, while still trying to use it for leverage to get the Palestinians to negotiate and address other concerns.”

Palestinian women sitting on top of sacks of flour on a cart after receiving the monthly food supplies from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza.Credit: AP

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