JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the U.S. should transfer its funds away from a United Nations agency that deals specifically with Palestinian refugees to another UN body that supports all the world’s refugees.
Netanyahu at the start of Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting addressed U.S. threats to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA.
The United States is the largest single donor to UNRWA, contributing $368 million of its $1.2 billion annual budget last year alone. The threat to cut U.S. funding to the Palestinian refugee agency came last week, another result of the U.N. General Assembly condemning, at the Palestinian delegation’s behest, Trump’s recognition last month of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem. It also perpetuates the narrative of the right-of-return, as it were, in order to eliminate the State of Israel; therefore, UNRWA needs to pass from the world,” Netanyahu said on Sunday, after saying that he “agrees completely” with President Donald Trump’s criticism of the agency.
“This is an agency that was established 70 years ago, only for Palestinian refugees, at a time when the UNHCR deals with global refugee problems. Of course this creates a situation in which there are great-grandchildren of refugees, who are not refugees but who are cared for by UNRWA, and another 70 years will pass and those great-grandchildren will have great-grandchildren and therefore, this absurdity needs to stop,” Netanyahu said.
But Netanyahu noted that “genuine” Palestinian refugees still need assistance, and proposes that UNRWA funds from the United States should be “gradually shifted” to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has “clear criteria for supporting genuine refugees, not fictitious refugees as happens today under UNRWA.”
Such an action would presumably minimize the damage to the humanitarian situation of Palestinians in Gaza, which could lead to more tension on Israel’s border with the coastal strip.
Most UNRWA assistance is distributed to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Israeli critics say that UNRWA in the Gaza Strip is not sufficiently vigilant about the uses of its facilities by Hamas and other terrorist groups. UNRWA has condemned Hamas for using its schools to stockpile rockets during the summer months, but Israel says that such discoveries often come after Palestinian civilians are placed in danger.
Supporters of UNRWA say it spares Israel from responsibility for a humanitarian crisis that would be inevitable without it.