The Trump administration is planning to cut all remaining US funding for the main UN programme for Palestinian refugees, with potentially devastating impacts, and is lobbying other countries to follow suit.
The move, reported in several US media outlets, has been anticipated both by senior officials at the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and other Washington insiders, who told the Guardian the defunding could be announced as early as next week.
Speculation about the future of US funding for the agency, which provides services to more than five million Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, comes as European and Arab countries pledged to protect the agency and Germany promised a significant increase in financial backing.
The threat emerged days after the US announced it was withdrawing $200mfrom its main development agency, USAid, for programmes based largely in Gaza where they help tens of thousands of people.
According to a report in the Washington Post, the Trump administration will use the announcement of its cessation of UNRWA funding to push for a huge reduction in the number of Palestinians officially registered as refugees.
The reported aim was to reduce those designated as refugees from five million to around 500,000, representing only those who were physically displaced from their homes when the agency was created seven decades ago, thus excluding millions of their descendants.
The US has long been the largest individual donor to UNRWA, pledging about one third of the agency’s $1.1bn annual budget, but earlier this year the administration cut a scheduled UNRWA payment of $130m to $65m, saying the agency needed to make unspecified reforms and calling on the Palestinians to renew peace talks.
The move has been widely interpreted in both Israel and Palestine as a blunt move by the US to unilaterally sweep aside one of the main sticking points in peace negotiations – the right of return of Palestinians.
Asked on Tuesday if the US should “get the right of return off the table”, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said she thought it should.
“I do agree with that … I absolutely think we have to look at right of return.”
Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general and former national security adviser to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said closing UNRWA “in the long run, no question, is the right move to do”.
“Reduction in funds is one way to shut up and close UNRWA. How do you do it? By saying, ‘UNRWA, you don’t exist any more, with all due respect.’”
The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said: “The loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction.”
Berlin has pledged to significantly increase its funding to the agency.
The issue of Palestinian refugees, and whether those abroad would be allowed to return to a future Palestinian state or be compensated, is one of the three key issues at the heart of the Middle East peace process, along with the status of Jerusalem and the borders of that state.
UNRWA was founded in 1949 after the first Arab-Israel war and the exodus of around 700,000 refugees who fled or were driven out of Israel on its founding as a state. Netanyahu has said UNRWA should be abolished and its responsibilities taken over by the main UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
There had been speculation for some time that the Trump administration had been moving in this direction, amid unconfirmed claims that senior officials had suggested to at least one host country that UNRWA funding for Palestinian refugees there could be replaced by bilateral US funding.
Critics have suggested US threats to cut aid to persuade Palestinians to accept a peace plan is a crude form of leverage. Aaron David Miller, tje head of the Middle East programme at the Wilson centre thinktank and a former Middle East adviser to several US secretaries of state, told the Guardian he believed such an approach was in line with a “transactional” foreign policy embraced by Trump.
“This is part of a broader issue with a president who sees every alliance as a transaction. We have seen it with the Europeans with Nato and we have seen it with Syria as well. This is clearly a political campaign to pressure [the Palestinians] as well as to save money, and it’s a deadly combination.”
Miller, like many in the foreign policy establishment, argues that there will never be a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue that satisfies Palestinians, but said UNRWA “serves a need” acknowledged by many Israeli officials even as they have campaigned against it. (theguardian)