Report: After Defunding, Trump Administration Seeks to Shut Down UNWRA

View of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) building in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The United States officially declared Friday that it will no longer fund UNWRA, the United Nations organization set up to deal with Arabs who fled Israel at the establishment of the state. On Motzoei Shabbos, Hadashot News, which broke the story on the U.S. pullback from UNWRA funding last weekend, reported that for now, Washington will allow Arab countries to pick up the funding slack that will result from the lack of American funds – but that the ultimate goal is the complete shutdown of UNWRA.

In a statement Friday, U.S. State Department spokesperson said that “the Administration has carefully reviewed the issue and determined that the United States will not make additional contributions to UNRWA. When we made a U.S. contribution of $60 million in January, we made it clear that the United States was no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs that we had assumed for many years. Several countries, including Jordan, Egypt, Sweden, Qatar and the UAE have shown leadership in addressing this problem, but the overall international response has not been sufficient.” The statement said that UNWRA had an “unsustainable business model” that “endlessly and exponentially expands the community of entitled beneficiaries. The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation,” the statement said.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu praised the decision, saying that Israel “supports the American move,” and that the “permanence” of refugee status that UNWRA bestows on the Palestinians “is one of the main problems that prolongs the conflict. It would be preferable to transfer the money to other organizations that will work on behalf of the population” instead of preserving their refugee status. Also praising the move was Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who said that the move essentially ended the Palestinian demand for the “right of return,” and was “a testimony to the actual situation on the ground and affirmation of the Israeli position that denies the validity of the right of return for Palestinians.” MK Michael Oren (Yesh Atid) said that “the Palestinians need to realize that the the American move was designed to bring them back to the negotiating table. From now on, any side that leaves that table will pay a price.”

Opposing the move, of course were the Palestinians. In what some considered a directly anti-Semitic statement, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said “I think the biggest gifts [of this move] were for the extremists in Israel, in Palestine, in the Arab world, provided by the children Adelson, and the Kushners and Greenblatt who advised the President to take such a decision. This is a matter of destruction.” PA spokesperson Nabil Abu-Rudeineh told Reuters that “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.” UNWRA spokesperson Chris Gunness said that UNWRA’s programs “have a proven track record in creating one of the most successful human development processes and results in the Middle East. The international state community, our donors and host countries have consistently praised UNRWA for its achievements and standards.”

In its report, Hadashot News quoted American sources as saying that the U.S. would now look for other organizations to help the Palestinians move forward, providing medical care, education, food and other needs, outside the structure of UNWRA. The U.S. has asked Jordan to take over UNWRA’s education network – the organization manages dozens of schools in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas and in Gaza – but was turned down by King Abdullah. Washington will also ask the PA to do so, but “certainly the answer will be no.” Arab countries will be asked to fund UNWRA for this year and possibly next, but the objective, the report said, was to replace UNWRA, or change its mandate radically from what it currently is.