Palestinians fear US aid threat would trigger humanitarian, security disaster

Palestinians fear US aid threat would trigger humanitarian, security disaster
Palestinian children play on a mattress near the ruins of houses which witnesses said were destroyed by Israeli shelling in Gaza in 2014. (Reuters)
Updated 07 January 2018

Palestinians fear US aid threat would trigger humanitarian, security disaster

Palestinians fear US aid threat would trigger humanitarian, security disaster

LONDON: The US risks triggering a security crisis in the Arab world if it follows through with threats to suspend funding to Palestinian refugees, according to a Palestine Liberation Organizaton (PLO) official.
It comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called for the closure of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, just days after US President Donald Trump threatened to cut financial assistance.
“Thousands” of children and teenagers would be left without access to education should the US withhold funding to the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees, cautioned Kanaan Al-Jamal, who oversees the UNRWA portfolio for the PLO in Ramallah.
“There are lots of terrorist groups targeting those teenagers,” Al-Jamal told Arab News. “This will affect national security for everyone, not just the Palestinians.”
Israel has been a long-standing critic of UNRWA.
“UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem,” Netanyahu said at his Cabinet meeting on Sunday.
He said that millions of other refugees were covered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and questioned why Palestinians should have their own body.
“This absurd situation must be ended,” Netanyahu said.
Trump has threatened to cut “massive future payments” to the Palestinians who he blames for stalling peace talks with Israel.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley doubled down on the threat earlier this week: “The President has basically said he doesn’t want to give any additional funding, or stop funding, until the Palestinians agree to come back to the negotiation table,” she told reporters in response to a question about funding for UNRWA.
Peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine hit an abrupt roadblock in December when President Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel marking a dramatic shift in US policy. The move drew sharp criticism from world leaders who overwhelmingly consider East Jerusalem to be Palestinian territory.
Following Trump’s announcement a spokesperson for the Palestinian leadership said that any future peace negotiations must “be based on international laws and resolutions that have recognized an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
Pending a final peace settlement, however, millions of Palestinian refugees rely on assistance from UNRWA.
The UN agency, founded in 1949, is funded largely by US donations, which account for some 30 percent of the annual operating budget.
In 2016, the US pledged $368 million to UNRWA programs, more than double the amount of the second largest donor, the EU.
Some 5 million Palestinian refugees spread across four countries rely on UNRWA services ranging from medical support to food assistance.
More than half of its annual budget is spent on education, with half a million Palestinian children currently attending schools managed by the organization.
Withholding US funds to the agency, Al-Jamal warned, could have dire consequences for those children. In Palestine alone, “thousands of children” would be affected as the suspension of US donations would force UNRWA schools to shutter, he said. “This would really be a disaster for everybody,” Al-Jamal said. “Without funds, these children will be in the streets… That is our concern,” he said.
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness, told Arab News: “UNRWA’s mandate is set by the UN General Assembly whose members give wide and strong support to the agency’s humanitarian and human development mission, while paying tribute to our indispensable contribution to peace and security, working with some of the most marginalized communities in the Middle East.”
He added: “What perpetuates the refugee crisis is the failure of the parties to deal with the issue. This needs to be resolved by the parties to the conflict in the context of peace talks, based on UN resolutions and international law, and requires the active engagement by the international community.”
In Palestine, concerns are mounting that the Trump administration will follow through with threatened funding cuts. Palestinian representatives have called for an emergency session of the UNRWA advisory committee, and a meeting has been scheduled with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the issue in the coming days, said Al-Jamal.
Al-Jamal accused the Trump administration of playing politics with the lives of the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees. By wielding crucial humanitarian aid as “political money,” the administration was “twisting the arm of the Palestinians through UNRWA,” Al-Jamal said.
Likening Washington’s tactics to blackmail, he said that Trump was attempting to force the Palestinian leadership to re-engage in peace negotiations on unfavorable terms.