Chief of Palestinian aid agency UNRWA slams U.S. funding cut as 'political' decision


Washington's decision to end funding for the United Nation's aid agency for Palestinian refugees was politically motivated, the agency's chief said, rejecting U.S. explanations that it was linked instead to how the organisation was run.

Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), on Sunday expressed his "deepest regret and fundamental disappointment" at the decision taken by the United States two days ago. He urged donors to help cover a deficit of 217 million dollars for this year.

Washington criticised the agency's business model and said UNRWA had an "irredeemably flawed operation."

"I want to make it very clear here that this decision was taken, for my understanding, for reasons that are political in nature and has nothing to do with UNRWA's performance," Kraehenbuehl said in the Jordanian capital Amman. "I say this with great confidence because during meetings I had in Washington in November 2017, shortly before the first measures were taken, there was a lot of recognition and respect expressed from U.S. officials about the way that UNRWA runs its operations," he added.

He said UNRWA should not be blamed for the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The reason why this conflict continues, seven decades after it began, is simply and squarely the responsibility of political actors," Kraehenbuehl said. "It is the utter failure of the parties and the international community to resolve this conflict that explains why Palestinian refugees are still refugees 70 years on. It has nothing to do with UNRWA's perpetuation of that situation," he added.

Friday's decision by the U.S. comes months after Washington said it will only provide UNRWA with 60 million dollars this year for its operations for Palestinian refugees in Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, down from 365 million dollars last year.  The agency has been appealing for donors since then and pared back its workforce in the Gaza Strip last month. 

Several countries promised to increase their donations to the cash-strapped UN agency, including Germany, Turkey, India as well as Indonesia and Malaysia, Kraehenbuehl said. Since the U.S. announced its decision to end the funding, UNRWA saw "a very strong increase in private donations."

Kraehenbuehl was attending a ceremony in an UNRWA-run school at al-Wehdat refugee camp, in south-east Amman, to mark the beginning of the school year. He said the opening of the schools on time in Jordan, following the opening of schools in Gaza and the West Bank last week, "should be a very strong message of reassurance," describing it as "a celebration of the right to education." Students have expressed their concern to Kraehenbuehl.

Ahmed Bakr, the head of the student parliament in UNRWA-run schools in Jordan, said he feels "worried about the future of the students’  education."

"Please support us and join the Dignity is Priceless campaign to help us keep our schools open," Bakr said, addressing Kraehenbuehl and a diplomatic delegation accompanying him.  In west Amman, dozens of people gathered in front of UNRWA's office to protest the U.S. decision, carrying Palestinian flags and banners, with one of them reading "There is no alternative to Palestine except Palestine."

The cuts in funding to Palestinians come alongside shifts in policy that have caused flare-ups in tension in the Middle East, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

U.S. President Donald Trump has accused the Palestinians of blocking progress in the Middle East peace talks, while the Palestinian side accuses him of a pro-Israeli bias.

The UNRWA supports Palestinians who lost their home as a result of the Middle East conflict. It helps around 5.4 million people, providing food aid, operating schools and running health centres.    (dpa)

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