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April 9, 2019 5:29 am

To Truly Confront UNRWA, the US Must Change Its Policy Immediately

avatar by E.J. Kimball

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Palestinians pass by the gate of an UNRWA-run school in Nablus in the West Bank, August 13, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Abed Omar Qusini.

Imagine what you could do with $5.7 billion. President Donald Trump could help fund his border wall. Democrats could put a down payment on their expansive health care plans. But, of course, we don’t have that $5.7 billion lying around, because it has been spent over the past 70 years to fund a UN agency that encourages Palestinian rejection of the world’s only Jewish state.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was established following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war “to carry out direct relief and works programs for Palestine refugees.” Originally intended for both Jewish and Arab refugees of the war, the Jewish refugees were absorbed into the newly created State of Israel, leaving the Arab refugees stateless and held in camps inside Arab-controlled territories.

The United States has historically been the largest single contributor to UNRWA since its founding in 1949. From 2015-2017, the US taxpayers gave UNRWA more than $1 billion ($380 million in 2015, $368 million in 2016, and $364 million in 2017).

The US had pledged $365 million to UNRWA in 2018, but President Trump changed that.

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On January 2, 2018, Trump tweeted, “We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED of MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. … But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

Following this tweet, the Trump administration decided to withhold $65 million of an anticipated $125 million payment to UNRWA.

Then, in August 2018, the Trump administration cut off all remaining US funding to UNRWA ($300 million), declaring it an “irredeemably flawed operation” whose “business model and fiscal practices” are “simply unsustainable and [have] been in crisis mode for many years.”

President Trump was seeking to pressure the Palestinians back to the negotiating table by holding up the funds. But this does not seem to have had the desired effect.

UNRWA appears to have weathered the funding cuts, and actually improved its financial position in 2018 compared to 2017, citing $260 million in new funding being secured by the agency as of the end of September 2018.

UNRWA’s deficit entering 2018 was $146 million. When the US cut its remaining pledge for 2018, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl reported that UNRWA’s deficit had ballooned to $446 million.

In response to the January 2018 announcement that the US would reconsider any future funding, UNRWA launched the “Dignity is Priceless” campaign to recover lost aid funds. “We’re reaching out to official donors, obviously, but also to the Arab world, to untraditional donors in emerging markets and to individuals, in the hope that we can rapidly upscale the amounts they give to us,” said Chris Gunness, the agency’s chief spokesman. The “Dignity is Priceless” campaign raised $425 million in 2018.

On November 19, 2018, Krähenbühl announced the budget deficit for 2018 had shrunk to $21 million. This means that UNRWA was able to replace the $300 million in lost aid from the United States, plus reduce its original $146 million deficit by $125 million.

Where did the $425 million come from?

Apparently, $200 million came from four Gulf countries — Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Another $109 million came from European Union countries, Japan, Turkey, Russia, and India. UNRWA also reported pledges totaling approximately $109.26 million from 13 other countries.

Taking UNRWA at its word, the loss of US support in 2018 may have helped its overall funding efforts.

At this moment, it does not appear that the Trump administration’s decision to cut off funding to UNRWA has had a negative impact on UNRWA’s operations.

However, an Al Jazeera report in September claimed that the United States allowed Gulf states to fund UNRWA in 2018, but that funding in 2019 “will be subject to agreeing with the US demand to count only 500,000 refugees out of the five million” claimed to exist by the agency.

At this time, UNRWA has not reported any pledges from Gulf states.

Withholding funds to UNRWA satisfies those that have advocated for an end to sending US taxpayer dollars to such an “irredeemably flawed” organization. However, the funding cut in 2018 came with no policy success to show for it.

The Trump administration should work with Congress to condition future funding to UNRWA on its acceptance that “Palestine refugees” refers only to the original refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Then, their descendants should be categorized as “other Palestinians in need.” This would be consistent with US policy towards those seeking refugee status in our country.

This approach would put the onus on UNRWA to refuse US funding, and may spur other donors to do the same. Right now, UNRWA is winning this definitional battle. A shift in strategy, however, can help us win the war over fake refugee status.

E.J. Kimball is the director of the Israel Victory Project at the Middle East Forum.

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