Palestinians Incensed at White House Decision to Cut Aid to UNRWA

UNRWA expresses 'deep regret and disappointment' at the U.S. decision, rejecting assertions that its programs are 'irredeemably flawed'

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the Palestinian Central Council, at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 15, 2018.
Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo

On Friday the United States halted all funding to a UN agency that helps Palestinian refugees in a move likely to further heighten tensions between the Palestinians and the Trump administration.

>>Trump administration ends financial aid for Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA

In response, Chris Gunness, a spokesman for United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) expressed "deep regret and disappointment" at the U.S. decision. Gunnes added that UNRWA rejects the assertion by U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert that its programs are "irredeemably flawed."

"We reject in the strongest possible terms the criticism that UNRWA's schools, health centers, and emergency assistance programs are 'irredeemably flawed,'" wrote Gunness in a series of Twitter posts. 

"It is the failure of the political parties to resolve the refugee situation which perpetuates the continued existence of UNRWA," Gunness added. 

In an official statement Nauert said, "The administration has carefully reviewed the issue and determined that the United States will not make additional contributions to UNRWA." 

Nauert said the agency's "endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years." 

UNRWA says it provides services to about 5 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza. Most are descendants of people who fled Palestine in the 1948 war that led to the creation of the state of Israel. 

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the decision as "a flagrant assault against the Palestinian people and a defiance of UN resolutions." 

U.S. President Donald Trump and his aides say they want to improve the Palestinians' plight, as well as start negotiations on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. 

But under Trump, Washington has taken a number of actions that have alienated the Palestinians, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. That move - a reversal of longtime U.S. policy - led Palestinian leadership to boycott Washington's peace efforts. 

The United States paid out $60 million to UNRWA in January but withheld another $65 million pending a review. 

"Such a punishment will not succeed to change the fact that the United States no longer has a role in the region and that it is not a part of the solution," Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters. 

He said "neither the United States nor else will be able to dissolve" UNRWA. 

In Gaza, the Islamist group Hamas also condemned the U.S move as a "grave escalation against the Palestinian people." 

"The American decision aims to wipe out the right of return and is a grave U.S escalation against the Palestinian people," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. 

Abu Zuhri told Reuters the "U.S leadership has become an enemy of our people and of our nation and we will not surrender before such unjust decisions." 

Earlier on Friday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany would increase its contributions to UNRWA because the funding crisis was fueling uncertainty. "The loss of this organization could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction," Maas said. 

UNRWA has faced a cash crisis since the United States, long its biggest donor, slashed funding earlier this year, saying the agency needed to make unspecified reforms and calling on the Palestinians to renew peace talks with Israel. 

The last peace talks collapsed in 2014, partly because of Israel's opposition to an attempted unity pact between the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions and to Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state, among other factors.