By Rick Gladstone, New York Times; wral.com
The United Nations agency that assists Palestinians who are classified as refugees has received more than $6 billion in American funding since its creation nearly seven decades ago, making the United States the agency’s single most important donor.
But over the past year, the Trump administration has made it increasingly clear that it regards the agency as part of the problem in resolving the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Beginning in January, the administration reduced funding for the agency, which in some ways functions as a quasi government. The cuts threw the agency into its worst financial crisis.
On Friday, the administration said it would stop all funding for the agency, calling it an “irredeemably flawed operation.” The disruption could further upend the lives of roughly 5.4 million Palestinians who rely on the agency’s services in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Here are questions and answers about the agency, officially known as the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA for short:
Q: What does UNRWA do?
A: Originally intended as a temporary relief provider, UNRWA was established in 1949 to assist more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Its operations are almost entirely funded by voluntary contributions from U.N. member states.
UNRWA has greatly expanded over the years and now runs schools for more than a half-million children. It also provides health care, food, jobs, emergency loans, housing assistance and other services to Palestinian refugees.
Q:What are the risks if UNRWA can no longer operate?
A: Many diplomats and political experts say the funding disruption to UNRWA is dangerous, injecting new instability into the Middle East at a time when tensions are already rising between Israel and its neighbors, particularly in Gaza, the Palestinian enclave of 2 million, where UNRWA is an important lifeline for roughly half the population. Even Israeli officials, who have long held a mixed view of UNRWA, are nervous because Israel’s defense establishment has long warned that sudden cuts to UNRWA funding could be destabilizing.
Q: Why has the Palestinian refugee population multiplied?
A: This question is a source of long-standing dispute. The descendants of the original refugees are also regarded as refugees under UNRWA’s mandate, which obliges the agency to provide services “until there is a just and lasting solution to the political situation,” said Peter Mulrean, director of UNRWA’s New York office. This means UNRWA has now served four generations of Palestinians.
The agency also does not necessarily remove Palestinians who have acquired citizenship in a new country from the list of registered refugees, further swelling the population.
Q: Why is this regarded as such a problem?
A: The passing of refugee status from parents to children is seen by Israel as one reason resolving the Palestinian conflict is so difficult. Refugees have the right of return to their homeland, which in this case includes areas that are now part of Israel. The prospect that millions of Palestinians could someday resettle in Israel is seen by many Israelis and their supporters as impossible.
Critics of UNRWA also contend that it has evolved into a sprawling welfare bureaucracy that perpetuates a culture of dependency among the Palestinian population, making the refugee problem even more insurmountable. UNRWA officials respond that they are adhering to the agency’s mandate of helping refugees until a permanent solution is reached.
Q: These are not new issues. What changed when President Donald Trump took office?
A: The Trump administration indicated early that it would be far more sympathetic to Israel’s side of the conflict than the administration of President Barack Obama. Within his first year in office, Trump announced that he was moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the contested holy city that the Palestinians also want for their capital in a future independent state. The action infuriated Palestinian leaders, who said the United States had forfeited its role in helping to negotiate any peace agreement.
Trump and his aides, angered by the Palestinian response and by what they viewed as ingratitude for American largess, began signaling that they would reduce financial assistance. Administration officials, led by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, complained that other countries should contribute more to UNRWA. In January, the administration withheld more than half of a scheduled $120 million payment and left future payments for fiscal 2018 in doubt.
UNRWA officials, caught by surprise, said they had been led to believe that the United States would provide the same funding as the roughly $360 million provided in fiscal 2017. Suddenly they faced an enormous deficit in UNRWA’s $1.25 billion budget.
Q: How did UNRWA respond?
A: Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner-general of UNRWA, warned that without emergency infusions from other countries or an easing of the U.S. position, the agency would be forced to drastically cut services, including schooling. He began an urgent fundraising campaign.
Donations from European and Arab nations helped raise $238 million. But last month UNRWA cut more than 260 jobs and reduced mental health services in an austerity move, and said that the school year might be delayed.
On Aug. 16, Krähenbühl announced that UNRWA schools would open on time, but he said the agency still faced a $217 million shortfall that could shut down schools and other services before the end of the year.
Q: What will happen if the United States does not restore UNRWA funding?
A: On Friday, the Jordanian foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said his country would host a fundraising event for UNRWA at the U.N. headquarters during the General Assembly session in September. At a meeting with Krähenbühl, Safadi said the event’s aim was to “close the gap and put in place a plan that will ensure UNRWA’s continued, ongoing funding for the coming years.”
The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said his government had pledged to significantly increase its future contributions, from roughly $94 million this year to an unspecified larger amount, Reuters reported Friday. It quoted him as saying that “the loss of this organization could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction.”