UNRWA should never close down


Benjamin Netanyahu should be careful what he wishes for. His call for the closure of the UN agency specifically responsible for Palestinian refugees could lead to a disaster not only for the refugees but also for Israel.

For Palestinians failing to enter peace talks with Israel following his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, US President Donald Trump has threatened to reduce aid to both the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. The Israeli prime minister is wholeheartedly backing Trump’s views which is only natural. But while Trump has a specific political goal in mind for the aid reduction, Netanyahu’s reasoning for the same purpose is off the wall. He says UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem, and that it treats great-grandchildren of refugees - who aren’t refugees. Consequently, Netanyahu wants the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East to “disappear”.

UNRWA was set up separately for Palestinian refugees 70 years ago, while another body – the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – deals with the rest of the world’s refugees. The obvious reason for the delegation of the assistance is that from the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, all told, there are five million Palestinian refugees, a huge number of desperate people who need an aid agency just for them due to the massive logistics of such an operation. And they need all the help they can get. If aid were reduced or cut altogether, half a million Palestinian refugee children would be without schools. Nine million health consultations which UNRWA doctors provide each year would cease, 1.7 million refugees who lack basic needs would be without food and cash assistance, and 40,000 refugees with disabilities would be without support. Furthermore, UNRWA recreational activities for 200,000 children would close down.

And if UNRWA is dealing with the great-grandchildren of refugees, and might in the future be dealing with the great-great-grandchildren of refugees, who is to blame? These are real refugees, not, as Netanyahu claims, fictitious refugees. They were driven out of their homeland; they did not merrily waltz out of their own accord.

UNRWA is not, as Netanyahu alleges, an organization that perpetuates the problem of Palestinian refugees. What perpetuates the refugee crisis is the perpetual Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. This is the one and only reason for there being refugees.

Cutting funds to UNRWA will worsen the humanitarian situation. The burden of providing the services UNRWA currently provides will be placed on Israel. Choking off funds would deepen Palestinian hardship, particularly in the Gaza Strip where UNRWA is still a main provider of educational and health services. And little or no aid could possibly put Israel and Hamas on course for war.

It is reported that in private Netanyahu has stopped short of backing an immediate halt of US aid to Palestinians. He might have sensed the recklessness of such a drastic step. The impact of cuts on the political stability in the Palestinian territories and the Middle East at large would be extremely serious. Protests would ensue and inevitable violence would be next.

The UN agency was founded in 1949 – just one year after the Israeli takeover of Palestine - to aid Palestinian refugees. UNRWA’s mandate is issued by the UN General Assembly. It should never have to close down. Should it cease to exist, that should be only when there is no longer a need for it. That would be when the occupation ends. Until then, an aid cut would leave Palestinian children starving in refugee camps. Have the US and Israel really thought this through?