(September 30, 2018 / JNS) During the recent 73rd session of the U.N. General Assembly, while much of the content focused on the words of speakers in the plenum, the real action took place on the sidelines. While Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was slamming Israel and the United States at the podium, representatives of UNRWA were outside, raising money from the Europeans and others to fill the fiscal void left after the Trump administration pulled $300 million from its annual funding.
UNRWA managed to raise $122 million—a far cry from what the organization claims to need. A significant amount came from those countries that do not appear to agree with Israeli and American opinion that UNRWA is corrupt and only perpetuates the Arab-Israeli conflict. The foreign ministers of Jordan, Sweden, Turkey, Japan and Germany, as well as High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, eagerly hosted a meeting with the aim of mobilizing financial and political support. The European Union, Germany, Norway, France, Belgium, Ireland and Kuwait announced additional funding commitments.
UNRWA’s Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl thanked member states for their support: “Today, we witnessed a powerful moment of commitment and solidarity with Palestine refugees. I am very grateful to the co-Chairs for convening this important meeting and demonstrating the strength of collective action.”
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that “those familiar with UNRWA, even those that nominally support the agency, are well-aware of the U.N. agency’s warts and fatal flaws.”
Schanzer believes the controversy over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to rescind financial support to UNRWA stems from two things.
“First, this was Trump’s decision, and those vociferously opposed to him will seek to make this step seem more controversial than it is. Second, there does not appear to be a ‘Plan B’ for how to ensure that certain key services continue, either under the auspices of a different agency or under a reformed UNRWA. But one cannot lose sight of the fact that this organization has lied to the world about the number of Palestinian refugees while quietly working with Hamas. In this way, the Trump decision strikes me as one that should not be viewed as controversial as it has been depicted.”
A former senior U.S. official recently said that UNRWA was a frequent topic of discussion between Israeli and U.S. officials, and that both sides wanted to reform UNRWA. In reality, UNRWA never changed. Now, the Trump administration is finally doing something about it.
Schanzer says there are two obvious reasons for Trump’s decision. “One is that cutting assistance plays well with his base. But perhaps more importantly, the Trump administration has been systematically weakening the Palestinian negotiating position on core issues ranging from Jerusalem to borders to now refugees. This decision strikes me as a prelude to the rollout of the elusive Trump plan.”
‘One of the greatest humanitarian scandals in history’
Obviously, Israel does not want to see Gaza or Palestinian Authority-controlled areas in Judea and Samaria descend into chaos by losing UNRWA funding, so it will need to act cautiously and help ensure that other nations step in to help in a way that would actually benefit the Palestinian people.
Omer Dostri, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, told JNS that the decision taken by the Trump administration to stop all financial contributions to UNRWA “is no less than a historic and just action that ended decades of one of the greatest humanitarian scandals in history.”
He blamed UNRWA for being “a passive and active partner in the past few decades in terrorist attacks against Israel, mainly in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, UNRWA schools were fertile ground for anti-Israel incitement, and even against the United States. … This reality leads to the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to the fixation of the unjustified feeling of victimization by the Palestinian side.”
Dostri emphasized that “it is nevertheless important to ensure international aid for a limited number of Palestinian refugees, most of whom fled from Israel during the 1948 war. Israel is interested in preventing a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. … In addition, Israel has an interest in continuing to maintain security and stability in the Palestinian Authority territories in Judea and Samaria.”
“For the short term, I am not sure chaos is coming,” added Schanzer. “But it cannot be ruled out if others pull their support. This is why it is so important to ensure that some of UNRWA’s key services continue under the auspices of another agency—preferably one that is less politicized and less corrupt.”
Gregg Roman, director of the Middle East Forum (MEF), told JNS that his organization has been instrumental in exposing UNRWA’s contribution to the perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “We’ve written more, had more meetings with members of Congress and have had more results. We’ve worked with Congress on this more than any other organization in the U.S. and continue to meet with individuals on all levels of the administration.”
Now, Roman said, the focus needs to be on how to work towards economic independence for the Palestinians.
“The privatization and decentralization of the provision of UNRWA services must be a first step in reforming the way Palestinians receive aid. Health care, education, wastewater treatment plants, microfinancing—all this could be provided cheaper through some other way,” he said.
Donor countries, first and foremost the United States, must define a criteria that allows support for the Palestinians but prevents corruption, added Roman.
He noted that Israel should renegotiate the Comay-Michelmore letters of 1967-68 that grant UNRWA permission to operate in Judea, Samaria and Gaza based on specific provisions, saying “there should also be a transition plan and pilot projects to get them on the path to sustainability.”