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Wednesday February 19th, 2020 11:53AM

US ends funding of UN agency for Palestinian refugees

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is ending its decades of funding for the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees, the State Department announced Friday, a week after slashing bilateral U.S. aid for projects in the West Bank and Gaza.

The U.S. supplies nearly 30 percent of the total budget of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, and had been demanding reforms in the way it is run. The department said in a written statement that the United States "will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation." The decision cuts nearly $300 million of planned support.

UNRWA released a statement late Friday rejecting "in the strongest possible terms" the Trump administration's criticism of the agency and expressing "deep regret and disappointment."

The U.S. decision comes as President Donald Trump and his Middle East pointmen, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, prepare for the rollout of a much-vaunted but as yet unclear peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians, and it could intensify Palestinian suspicions that Washington is using the humanitarian funding as leverage.

The Palestinian leadership has been openly hostile to any proposal from the administration, citing what it says is a pro-Israel bias, notably after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December and moved the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv in May. The Palestinian Authority broke off contact with the U.S. after the Jerusalem announcement.

In 2016, the U.S. donated $355 million to the UNRWA, which provides health care, education and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and it was set to make a similar contribution this year. In January the Trump administration released $60 million in funds but withheld a further $65 million it had been due to provide. The remaining amount — around $290 million — had yet to be allocated.

"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. "Several countries, including Jordan, Egypt, Sweden, Qatar, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) have shown leadership in addressing this problem, but the overall international response has not been sufficient."

The statement criticized the "fundamental business model and fiscal practices" of UNRWA, and what the department characterized as the "endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries."

UNRWA responded by stating that its "programs have a proven track record in creating one of the most successful human development processes ... in the Middle East." UNRWA added that it has been recognized by the World Bank "for running one of the most effective school systems in the region," according to a statement released by the agency late Friday.

"This is a reflection of UNRWA's steadfast commitment to preserving dignity and opportunities," the statement added.

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres' office released a statement late Friday regretting the Trump administration's decision to cut UNRWA funding, saying the U.N. has appreciated years of U.S. support for the agency.

"UNRWA has a strong record of providing high-quality education, health and other essential services, often in extremely difficult circumstances, to Palestine refugees who are in great need," the statement added.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes during the war that led to Israel's establishment in 1948. Today, there are an estimated 5 million refugees and their descendants, mostly scattered across the region — a figure that has become a point of contention. Palestinian leaders assert the right of those refugees to return to land now under Israeli control.

Last Friday, the State Department announced the U.S. was cutting more than $200 million in bilateral aid to the Palestinians, following a review of the funding for projects in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' spokesman called that U.S. decision an attempt to force the Palestinians to abandon their claim to Jerusalem.

Speaking before the announcement on UNRWA, its representative in Washington, Elizabeth Campbell, said the withdrawal of U.S. funding would leave the agency facing a financial crisis, but noted that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others have provided more than $200 million in new funding to help cover its budget this year.

In recent days, senior Trump administration officials publicly expressed dissatisfaction with UNRWA but stopped short of saying the U.S. would defund the agency.

On Tuesday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, complained that "Palestinians continue to bash America" although it's the main donor for UNRWA. Speaking at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, Haley also said, "we have to look at right of return" of those classified as Palestinian refugees. She called on Middle East nations to increase aid.

There is deepening international concern over deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, and the U.S. decision to defund provoked strong and polarized reactions in Washington.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal advocacy group, said Trump's decision "has the potential to harm millions of innocent civilians" and "will ratchet up the risk of greater destabilization and conflict across the Middle East."

But Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called it "a win for U.S. taxpayers and peace" that would make Palestinians more self-sufficient and prepare them "for a true peace with Israel."

The State Department statement said the U.S. will intensify dialogue with the United Nations, host governments and international stakeholders about new models and new approaches to help Palestinians, especially schoolchildren, which may include direct bilateral assistance from the U.S. and others.

____

Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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