Netanyahu calls US decision to halt funding to UN Palestinian refugee agency a ‘welcome and important change’

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the United States announcement that it would halt all funding to the United Nations agency that aids Palestinians a “welcome and important change.”

Netanyahu made the statement on Sunday morning, more than a day after U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that: “The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”

“When we made a U.S. contribution of $60 million in January, we made it clear that the United States was no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs that we had assumed for many years,” the statement said.

The statement also noted that the Trump administration takes issue with the agency’s definition of a Palestinian refugee, which gives refugee status also to the millions of descendants of the original Palestinian refugees.

“Beyond the budget gap itself and failure to mobilize adequate and appropriate burden sharing, the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years – tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries – is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years,” the statement said.

It noted that the U.S. will look for other ways to assist the Palestinians, especially the children who “are part of the future of the Middle East.”

UNRWA provides relief to some 5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It uniquely among refugee agencies identifies multiple generations of descent as refugees; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees extends such recognition only to the second generation.

The Trump administration reportedly wants to slash the number of Palestinians eligible for UNRWA assistance to 500,000.

Netanyahu noted on Sunday in Yad Binyamin that “uprooted people come to us from all kinds of countries. Holocaust survivors who were torn from their land. From communities that they had lived in, in Lithuania – for 500 years, from Poland – for 1,000 years. They were uprooted, survived and came here. Did we leave them as refugees? No, we absorbed them, from Arab countries as well. They were uprooted, from the same war, the war of liberation. Hundreds of thousands of Jews who came here as refugees without anything; they left all their property behind.”

He continued: “This is not what is happening with the Palestinians. There they created a unique institution, 70 years ago, not to absorb the refugees but to perpetuate them.”

He said the withheld funds “must be taken and used to genuinely help rehabilitate the refugees, the true number of which is much smaller than the number reported by UNRWA.”

The United States released $60 million to UNRWA in January, but withheld another $65 million that it had been pledged to contribute, saying that it expected other countries to donate more in order to prevent the imbalance that made the United States the agency’s single largest donor.

The US donated $370 million to the agency in 2017 and $355 million in 2016.

The Israel Policy Forum said Saturday night in a statement that the “United Nations Relief and Works Agency is a deeply flawed organization, but it is also responsible for the education, healthcare, and social services of millions of Palestinians in 59 refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Because of the Trump administration’s decision to end all U.S. funding of the organization, UNRWA is in danger of collapsing, which will result in chaos and a security nightmare for Israel. There is no other organization that can step in overnight and assume all of UNRWA’s responsibilities, and overseeing UNRWA’s death without a backup plan in place is grossly irresponsible.”

The Palestinian ambassador to Washington Husam Zomlot said in a statement that by cutting aid to the UNRWA the United States is “reneging on its international commitment and responsibility. It’s not up to the U.S. administration to define the status of Palestinian refugees. The only status the U.S. can define is its own role in peacemaking in the region. By endorsing the most extreme Israeli narrative on all issues including the rights of more than 5 million Palestinian refugees, the U.S. administration has lost its status as peacemaker and is damaging not only an already volatile situation but the prospects for future peace in the Middle East.”

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