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As US weighs policy on UNRWA, Israel recommends gradually reducing aid

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As US weighs policy on UNRWA, Israel recommends gradually reducing aid

A Palestinian man stands next to a cart carrying a flour sack distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip January 3, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)

Jerusalem would like to see US aid gradually reduced to the UN Relief and Works Agency, to wean the Palestinians of this assistance and serve as an incentive to reform the organization, rather than end the assistance all at once, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

This message has been relayed to the US administration, which is debating whether to cut funding to the organization in some form unless the Palestinians return to the negotiation table with Israel.

One idea Israel is proposing is that the money the US annually provides to UNRWA – which deals exclusively with Palestinian refugees and their descendants and in Jerusalem’s viewpoint perpetuates the refugee issue – is given instead to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is charged with providing protection and relief to refugees worldwide, Channel 2 reported on Saturday night.

The Trump administration is in the throes of an internal debate over whether to reduce funding to the Palestinian Authority after the president threatened it with an aid cut last week.

Discussions began on Friday among the administration’s national security principals and will continue throughout this week. The current debate focuses on whether to cut funding to UNRWA.

Several US sources told the Post that Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, is the primary advocate for a cut in aid to UNRWA. But agency heads based in Washington support maintaining the aid, as do some inside the Israeli government, who fear a humanitarian and security crisis should the funding be slashed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position is that UNRWA should be gradually defunded, in the hope that this will trigger change inside the organization. The way UNRWA is currently set up, Netanyahu maintains, perpetuates the refugee problem, rather than providing a permanent solution to those benefiting from its aid.

Israel’s criticism of the organization is that it treats Palestinian refugees differently from refugees from every other conflict in the world, and that it “incentivizes” victimhood.

Since the Palestinians are habituated to this aid, the argument runs, there is no incentive to significantly alter the situation by providing permanent homes outside of camps for the refugees and their descendants, and that keeping them dependent on the assistance only perpetuates the refugee problem into eternity.

Channel 2 reported last week that an internal Foreign Ministry report, however, argued that cutting funds to UNRWA “may worsen the humanitarian situation and lead to catastrophe, especially in Gaza,” adding that “it will not help, but on the contrary, it will [put the burden on] Israel.” Senior security officials have also reportedly expressed similar sentiments.

The United States is UNRWA’s largest donor. In 2016, it contributed $152 million directly to the organization and another $216m. to projects related to its work – totaling about a quarter of the agency’s budget – according to UNRWA’s donor charts.

Erroneous reports circulated in Israeli media on Friday suggesting a decision in Washington had been made to cut $125m. of the aid, as the US funding had not been delivered by the first of the month.

But “there is no existing schedule that obligates the United States to provide specific amounts of aid to UNRWA on specific dates,” a senior administration official told the Post. “The decisions of when to provide aid in the fiscal year, and in what allocations, lie with the secretary of state.

“At this time no such decisions have been made,” the official added.

The formal interagency review process began after Trump tweeted angrily last week that Palestinians were receiving “HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS” in US aid without offering Washington “appreciation or respect” in return.

PA officials dismissed Trump as a serious peace broker last month after he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“We are reviewing our assistance to the Palestinians in light of their recent conduct, per the president’s recent message,” the senior administration official told the Post.

Earlier last week, the White House accused PA officials of “spreading falsehoods” about US policy and undermining its efforts to forge peace before they formally begin.

In Israel, meanwhile, a number of ministers expressed support for cutting the aid.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan expressed astonishment on Twitter that the Foreign Ministry would object to an aid cut.

“I find it hard to believe that the Foreign Ministry of Israel opposes a cut to UNRWA – the body that perpetuates the refugee problem instead of solving it and that aids terror in all kinds of ways that have been proven – we have to dismantle it as quickly as possible,” Erdan wrote.

And Education Minister Naftali Bennett issued a statement saying that “UNRWA is a terror-supporting organization.

“Its very existence perpetuates the dire situation of Gaza’s population, who suffer under the rule of Hamas,” he said. “Aiding the residents of Gaza should be no different than aiding the Syrian residents suffering under a terror regime, or from aiding any other group of descendants of refugees.”

Bennett said that he expected “all Israeli branches of government, including the Foreign Ministry, to support a decision to cut funding to an organization which employs Hamas terrorists and uses its schools to hide rockets.”

Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.

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