Palestinian refugees reacted with dismay on Saturday to a United States decision to halt funding to a U.N. agency, warning that it would lead to more poverty, anger and instability in the Middle East.
The U.S. announcement on Friday that it will no longer support the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has deepened a cash crisis at the agency, and heightened tensions with the Palestinian leadership.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said in a statement Friday that “The fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years…is simply unsustainable.” She went on to describe it as an “irredeemably flawed operation.”
Nauert said the U.S. would seek to find other means to help Palestinian refugees.
That’s what the Conservative government of Stephen Harper did when it stopped sending Canadian aid dollars to UNWRA in 2010. The Conservatives, at the time, said that terrorist groups like Hamas were siphoning off UNWRA’s cash and resources.
Instead, the Harper Conservatives provided aid directly to the Palestinian Authority. In 2014, for example, Harper visited Ramallah, in Israel’s West Bank, where he met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and announced Canada would provide $66 million in aid for humanitarian assistance and economic development.
The Trudeau government, though, reversed that decision when it took office and, late in 2016, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced Canada would provide UNWRA with $25 million and would do so with “enhanced due diligence” to ensure Canadian dollars were not misused or diverted by terrorists.
A spokesperson for Bibeau, Justin Lesage, said Saturday that Canada would not comment on the decisions of other UNWRA donors or on the U.S. characterization of UNWRA as an “irredeemably flawed operation.”
UNRWA, though, rejected the criticisms, with spokesman Chris Gunness describing it as “a force for regional stability.”
The 68-year-old UNRWA provides services to about five million Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza. Most are descendants of the roughly 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled the fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.
Gunness said UNRWA provides health clinics, schooling for 526,000 refugee children across Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and food assistance to 1.7 million people — a million of them in Gaza. The agency, which has a funding gap of $217 million, will now ask donors for more and seek new sources of income, he said.
It is not clear if the US withdrawal will spark a review of Canada’s funding commitment but Lesage, Bibeau’s spokesperson, said Canada supports UNWRA’s work.
“As UNRWA is the only UN agency mandated to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees, we work with them to deliver the basic education, health and social services, and humanitarian assistance that is so needed,” Lesage said in an e-mailed statement. “Ensuring that UNRWA has sufficient resources to deliver on its mandate is important for regional stability, and for meeting the needs of refugee women and youth.”
The United States, by far UNRWA’s biggest donor, slashed funding earlier this year, paying out only $60 million of a first installment in January, and withholding $65 million. It had promised $365 million for the whole year.
“It is a deeply regrettable decision,” Guinness said. “Some of the most disadvantaged, marginalized and vulnerable people on this planet are likely to suffer.”
The UNRWA move is the latest in a number of actions by the Trump administration that have alienated the Palestinians, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
A senior Palestinian official worried that if UNWRA is weakened by the U.S. decision to withdraw funding, extremist groups in the region would fill the void.
Moreover, America’s rivals for influence in the region, notably Russia and China, have already promised to step up their contributions to UNWRA.
- With files from The Associated Press and Reuters