by Ariel Kahana, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Israel has absorbed many refugees from around the world but, unlike UNRWA, Israel integrates them rather than keeping them refugees, he says.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Breuer state religious
elementary school in Yad Binyamin, Sunday
Photo: Avi Ohayon / GPO
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced his support for the U.S. decision Friday to halt funding for the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees, saying that "the United States did a very important thing."
Speaking during a visit to a school in the central Israeli community of Yad Binyamin Sunday, Netanyahu said the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, was actually harming the Palestinians by perpetuating their status as refugees.
"Have displaced people from all over the world not arrived in Israel? Have we kept them as refugees? No, we absorbed them. That includes those who came from Arab countries. Did we perpetuate their refugee status? No," he said.
"[But] that is not what happens with the Palestinians. They created a special institution, not to integrate the refugees and rehabilitate them, but to perpetuate refugee status.
"UNRWA should close down and the refugees should be rehabilitated."
Netanyahu said the number of remaining Palestinian refugees who fled following the State of Israel's establishment in 1948 is "much lower than the number reported by UNRWA."
The Prime Minister's Office also expressed support for the move.
"The perpetuation of Palestinian refugee-dom by UNRWA is one of the central problems that perpetuate the conflict," the PMO said in a statement.
"The money should be directed toward other bodies that will make proper use of it for the benefit of the population and not the perpetuation of refugee-dom."
The 68-year-old UNRWA provides services to about 5 million Palestinians across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 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.
The agency is also a major employer in the Palestinian territories.
On Friday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said UNRWA's business model and fiscal practices were an "irredeemably flawed operation" and that the agency's "endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable."
UNRWA rejected the criticism, with spokesman Chris Gunness describing the agency as "a force for regional stability."
"These very programs have a proven track record in creating one of the most successful human development processes and results in the Middle East," he said, speaking in Jordan, where more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees live, including 370,000 in refugee camps.
"It is a deeply regrettable decision. ... Some of the most disadvantaged, marginalized and vulnerable people on this planet are likely to suffer," Gunness said.
He said UNRWA provides health care and schooling for 526,000 refugee children across Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and food assistance to 1.7 million people, 1 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.
'An attack on the Palestinian people'
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 entire year.
Washington said the agency needed to make unspecified reforms and called on the Palestinians to renew peace talks with Israel.
In Lebanon on Friday, before the U.S. decision was confirmed, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was asked if his agency could assume UNRWA's role.
"The Palestinian refugees in the region are the responsibility of UNRWA," he said, making no further comment.
The UNRWA move is the latest in a number of actions by the Trump administration that have angered Palestinians, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Those moves reversed longtime U.S. policy and led the Palestinian leadership to boycott peace efforts led by Jared Kushner, Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law.
Trump has said his recognition of Jerusalem was meant to remove the issue from the negotiating table. The Palestinians now fear the U.S. is putting pressure on host countries including Lebanon, Jordan and Syria to absorb their refugee populations and eliminate that issue from future peace negotiations.
On Saturday, the Palestinians condemned the U.S. decision to end its decades of funding for the U.N. agency, calling this an attack on the Palestinian people and accusing the Trump administration of trying to remove sensitive core issues from the negotiating table even while it says it is preparing a Middle East peace initiative.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Washington of implementing the agenda of "Israeli extremists who have done nothing but to destroy the prospect of peace."
"What is the American administration doing? They are pre-empting, prejudging issues reserved for permanent status," Erekat said in Ramallah. "They are undermining the moderate forces in Palestine and Israel. Those elements that want to achieve peace peacefully based on a two-state solution are being destroyed."
He said extremists across the region had been given "gifts."
"The United States may have the right to say that we don't want to give taxpayers' money, but who gave the U.S. the right to approve the stealing of my land, my future, my aspirations, my capital, my Aqsa mosque, my Holy Sepulcher Church?" he said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said the U.S. decision "does not serve peace but rather strengthens terrorism in the region" and urged the U.N. to take a "firm stand" against the Americans.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem accused the United States of going after UNRWA to eliminate the Palestinian right to return to their future homes.
"It's clear that Trump has shifted from taking sides with the Israeli enemy to being a partner in the assault on our Palestinian people's rights," he said. "All these decisions will not stop our people's struggle to gain freedom and return."
Michael Oren, deputy minister for Public Diplomacy in the Prime Minister's Office, said the Palestinians "must internalize that the ending of American assistance for UNRWA stems from the American administration's efforts to revive the peace process and bring the Palestinians back to the table. Ending American aid to UNRWA is a positive and essential step in any effort to achieve peace sometime in the future."
UNRWA is "an organization that perpetuates the conflict by inflating the number of refugees, that educates young people to reject the right of the State of Israel to exist while aspiring to realize the right of return and providing shelter to terrorists and smuggling their weapons," he said.
"The organization is not a vital component for peace but a clear blatant obstacle to peace. UNRWA's sponsorship of schools can go to other relief organizations, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. From here on in, any side that leaves the negotiating table should expect to pay a price."
Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon also welcomed the move.
The Palestinian refugee issue "is a problem that is used as a weapon against us and will not allow a stable situation at some point. The international attitude toward Palestinian refugees is unique and differs from that of any other type of refugees since World War II and until today," he said at an event in Beersheba Saturday.
"The organization responsible for [refugees in the former] Yugoslavia or other places is UNHCR, a U.N. mechanism whose mission is to solve the refugee problem in no more than three years following the event."
Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said the U.S. decision represents a "realistic view of the situation and supports Israel's position, which categorically rejects the claim of the 'Palestinian right of return.'"
UNRWA is "the body that enshrines the Palestinian refugee problem," he wrote on Twitter.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid also took to Twitter to "welcome the U.S. decision to stop funding UNRWA. Aside from providing cover to terror, UNRWA is responsible for the fact that the 750,000 people they registered originally (most of whom have since died) became 5.5 million fake refugees. UNRWA lost sight of its purpose long ago."
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said on Saturday that his country regrets the U.S. decision to halt funding to UNRWA, as this will only fuel radicalism and harm prospects for Middle East peace.
He said that in Jordan, which hosts more than 2 million Palestinian refugees, the "disruption of UNRWA services will have extremely dangerous humanitarian, political and security implications for refugees and for the whole region. It will only consolidate an environment of despair that would ultimately create fertile grounds for further tension. Politically it will also further hurt the credibility of peacemaking efforts."
Safadi said a planned Sept. 27 meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York being sponsored by Jordan with Japan, the European Union, Sweden and Turkey would try to "rally political and financial support for the agency."
"We will do everything possible to ensure that UNRWA gets the funds it needs to continue offering its services to Palestinian refugees," Safadi said.
He said international support for the agency is inseparable from future talks on the fate of refugees, among the most sensitive issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The issue was agreed to be among final status talks that were stalled in 2014.
"The status of refugees is not determined by any one single country, it is determined under international law, and as such no country can take away that status," Safadi said.
The European Union, the second-largest contributor to UNRWA with its member states, urged the U.S. to reconsider its "regrettable decision." It said it would continue its assistance to the agency and discuss funding alternatives with other partners.
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, under fire for his anti-Semitic comments and support for terrorists, also offered his thoughts on the U.S. move.
"Shameful for the U.S. to end its funding for UNRWA, a vital U.N. refugee agency. The U.K. must help to fill the gap by boosting its contributions. Support for Palestinian refugees is a vital commitment until there is a just and viable settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict," he said.
Ariel Kahana, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
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