UNRWA: Millions of Palestinian refugees 'cannot be wished away'
Slamming US aid cuts, UNRWA's commissioner-general says that Palestinian refugees 'have rights under international law and represent 5.4 million people'; while Israel is pleased, Palestinian leadership is considering appealing to UN General Assembly to oppose decision.
Pierre Krahenbuhl, the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), addressed Monday US aid cutoff, saying that millions of Palestinian refugees “cannot simply be wished away.”
While Israel supports the American move, Palestinian officials threaten to appeal the decision.
Krahenbuhl wrote an open letter to Palestinian refugees and the agency’s staff in response to US aid cutoff and allegations that UNRWA's work only perpetuates the Palestinian refugees' plight.
“No matter how often attempts are made to minimize or delegitimize the individual and collective experiences of Palestine refugees, the undeniable fact remains that they have rights under international law and represent a community of 5.4 million men, women and children who cannot simply be wished away,” he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the to stop funding the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, accusing it of perpetuating a crisis that lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu described UNRWA on Sunday as “the refugee perpetuation agency” whose money “should be taken and be used to really help rehabilitate the refugees, whose real number is a sliver of that reported by UNRWA.”
US State Department cuts financial aid to UNRWA by nearly $300 million
The United States on Friday halted all funding to a UN agency that helps Palestinian refugees in a decision further heightening tensions between the Palestinian leadership and the Trump administration.
The Washington Post reported that the move was part of the US State Department's re-calculation of its investments in order to fit US's policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
The US decision to cut financial aid to UNRWA is intended to force Palestinians into changing their refugee' status, since there are not enough funds to help those who are defined as refugees, and those who have the right to return home.
The US administration plans to express its displeasure with the way UNRWA invests its funds.
The administration will also call for a change in UNRWA's definition of refugees so that the five million recognized as refugees by the organization will be reduced to a few tens of thousands—only those that remained alive since the Jewish Agency was founded 70 years ago.
However, the US administration cannot unilaterally change UN's definition of a refugee eligible for UNRWA's assistance, which now also includes the descendants of refugees that were expelled or fled from their lands.
A change in the definition of the Palestinian refugees may undermine Palestinian's demand for the right of return. Many foreign and security policy experts, including Israeli, have warned against cutting UNRWA's budget since it will increase violence and worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.
On the other hand, Washington believes that insistence on the Palestinian's right of return is one of the major points of contention between the parties, which makes it difficult to advance the peace negotiations.
Similarly, US President Donald Trump believes that did the right thing when he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and thus has "taken Jerusalem off the negotiating table.”
In addition to economic support given to UNRWA, the United States provided extensive aid to the West Bank and Gaza. Last week the US administration announced it would redirect $200 million in Palestinian economic support funds for programs in the West Bank and Gaza.
This move constitutes the US change in policy in the region. Although few in the region believe that the right of return can be fully realized, it has long been regarded as a central issue in peace negotiations.
While Israel support the cut, the Palestinians threaten to appeal to the UN
After Trump ordered the aid cutoff, the Palestinians threatened to appeal to the UN. The US decision was a "flagrant assault" against Palestinian people, Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Friday.
"The Palestinian leadership is considering the possibility of appealing to the UN General Assembly and the Security Council to oppose the US decision." Rdainah stated.
"The US decision does not serve the peace process but strengthens terrorism in the region and violates the rights of the Palestinian people," he added.
The General Assembly is set to open in New York on September 18 for a week.
The Arab League also strongly condemned the decision. The organization's deputy secretary general for Palestinian affairs, Saeed Abu Ali, said that the United States has no right to cut funding—for an agency established by the UN resolution—because they want to please the international community.
Israel supports the American move, and says that defining the Palestinians as refugees only perpetuate the crisis that lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
UNRWA was founded in 1949 after the first Arab-Israel war—the War of Independence—in the wake of the exodus of around 700,000 refugees who fled or were driven out of Israel on its founding as a state. The agency provides services to approximately five million Palestinian refugees from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza.