The head of UNRWA, the United Nations agency that has supported Palestinian refugees for seven decades, has rebuffed a US proposal to have host countries take over the services it provides across the Middle East.
The suggestion, from US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt at a UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday, that UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, should be effectively dismantled was the latest US attack on an agency that began operations in 1950.
Formerly UNRWA’s largest donor, the US cut off its roughly $300m annual donation in 2018, deeming its fiscal practices “irredeemably flawed”, stoking tensions between the Palestinians and US President Donald Trump‘s administration.
“We need to engage with host governments to start a conversation about planning the transition of UNRWA services to host governments, or to other international or local non-governmental organisations, as appropriate,” Greenblatt said after the Security Council was briefed by UNRWA chief Pierre Krahenbuhl.
Asked at a Gaza news conference on Thursday about Greenblatt’s remarks, Krahenbuhl said UNRWA’s mandate was a matter for the entire UN General Assembly to consider, not by “one or two individual member states”.
“Therefore, Palestinian refugees should remember that the mandate is protected by the General Assembly, and of course, we will engage with member states to ensure what we hope is a safe renewal of that mandate,” Krahenbuhl said.
Strong backing in UN General Assembly
UNRWA’s mission is due to come up for renewal later this year in the General Assembly, where support for the agency has been traditionally strong and the United States would likely face an uphill battle to change or cancel its mission.
Greenblatt said UNRWA was “currently running on fumes, surviving on a surge in foreign donations in 2018”, and it was time for the international community to address the needs of Palestinians in refugee camps in a sustainable way.
He said it was time to hand over services assured by the UN agency to countries hosting Palestinian refugees and NGOs.
Greenblatt said the US had given six billion dollars in aid to UNRWA since it was founded in 1949 “and yet, year after year, UNRWA funding fell short”.
More than half of the two million Palestinians living in the besieged Gaza Strip, under Israeli blockade, receive food aid from UNRWA.
“We need to be honest about the situation. UNRWA is a bandaid and the Palestinians who use its services deserve better,” Greenblatt said.
Since Trump assumed office in 2017, Palestinians have grown concerned that he intends to bring about UNRWA’s demise.
US ally Israel says the work of UNRWA only perpetuates the plight of Palestinians.
“Year after year, Palestinians in refugee camps were not given the opportunity to build any future; they were misled and used as political pawns and commodities instead of treated as human beings,” Greenblatt told the Security Council.
Krahenbuhl however, rebuffed Greenblatt’s criticism at a conference in Gaza saying UNRWA cannot be blamed for stalled peace efforts.
“I unreservedly reject the accompanying narrative that suggests that somehow UNRWA is to blame for the continuation of the refugee-hood of Palestine refugees, of their growing numbers and their growing needs,” Krahenbuhl said in response to a question about Greenblatt’s comments.
“The fact that UNRWA still exists today is an illustration of the failure of the parties and the international community to resolve the issue politically – and one cannot deflect the attention onto a humanitarian organisation.”
UNRWA says it provides services to about five million registered Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and that it safeguards and advances their rights under international law.
Most are descendants of about 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation and claim a right of return to the lands they left.
Israel has ruled out such an influx, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority. Palestinian leaders reject settling refugees in host countries, saying their presence there should be considered temporary.
Palestinians in host countries complain of restrictions on jobs and benefits there.