Netherlands, Belgium pledge new funds to UN Palestinian relief agency following US cutbacks


AMSTERDAM (JTA) — The Netherlands and Belgium pledged a total of $38 million for the U.N. agency that provides aid to Palestinians following U.S. funding cuts of $110 million.

Belgium’s government pledged $23.3 million in extra funding for UNRWA and the Dutch government said it would fast-track another $15 million in funding.

The United States announced its cuts on Thursday. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that a $45 million payment pledged for the UNRWA food aid program would not go through for the time being. Earlier this week, the U.S. said it would freeze $65 million pledged to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, transferring only $60 million.

According to UNRWA, the United States provided more than $350 million in aid to the organization in 2017.

In the Netherlands, International Aid Minister Sigrid Kaag, who used to work for UNRWA and is married to a Palestinian former Cabinet minister, said she would make available immediately her country’s annual budget of $15 million for UNRWA, which was planned to be dispensed in several payments.

Three lawmakers, including one from the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, submitted questions to Kaag in parliament this week about the decision.

“Why are you fast-tracking funding for UNRWA when there are so many potential groups with urgent needs?” they asked.

Israel has accused UNRWA institutions of harboring terrorist activities against Israel. In October, a Hamas tunnel was discovered under a UNRWA-run school in the Gaza Strip. Israel has also accused UNRWA teachers of using anti-Semitic and anti-Israel textbooks. And Israel has charged that UNRWA’s definition of refugee perpetuates Palestinian intransigence and suffering.

UNRWA has taken various steps to address anti-Israel and anti-Semitic content in its schools. It also maintains that it opposes any militant activity on its institutions or by its staff.

“The agency that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and narrative of erasing Zionism — and this is the first time this thing is challenged,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last year. “It’s a good thing that they’re moving forward and challenging this body.”

Founded in 1949, UNRWA provides social, welfare and medical services to approximately 5 million Palestinian Arabs who were displaced during the first Israeli-Arab war of 1948, or are descended from Palestinian Arabs who were displaced in the conflict. UNRWA provides its assistance in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

UNRWA’s definition of a refugee extends to descendants of the people who fled. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is responsible for aiding all other refugees in the world, only recognizes as refugees those who themselves fled persecution, conflict or disaster zones.

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