Israel’s Netanyahu Calls for Closure of UN Palestinian Refugee Agency

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 3, 2018. Photo: AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called for the closure of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, days after U.S. President Donald J. Trump threatened to cut Palestinian aid.

Israel has long viewed the U.N. agency, known as UNRWA, as biased against it, an allegation the agency strongly denies, saying it is only providing necessary services to Palestinians.

Israeli officials also criticise the agency’s method of classifying refugees, with descendants also eligible to register.

“UNRWA is an organisation that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem,” Mr. Netanyahu said while also lauding Mr. Trump at the beginning of his weekly cabinet meeting.

He said that while millions of other refugees around the world were cared for by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Palestinians have their own body which also treats “great-grandchildren of refugees — who aren’t refugees.”

“This absurd situation must be ended,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said that its mandate came from the U.N. General Assembly “whose members give wide and strong support to the agency’s humanitarian and human development mission.”

“What perpetuates the refugee crisis is the failure of the parties to deal with the issue,” he wrote in a statement.

“This needs to be resolved by the parties to the conflict in the context of peace talks, based on UN resolutions and international law.”

In June, Mr. Netanyahu said he had raised the issue with Washington’s U.N. envoy Nikki Haley.

On Wednesday, Trump threatened to cut aid worth more than $300 million annually to the Palestinians in a bid to force them to negotiate.

The United States has long provided the Palestinian Authority with much-needed budgetary support and security assistance, as well as an additional $304 million for U.N. programmes in the West Bank and Gaza.

A Friday report on Israeli Channel 10 television said the U.S. had frozen a payment due to UNRWA, but a spokesman for the U.N. organisation said on Saturday that they “have not been informed directly of a formal decision either way by the U.S. administration.”

UNRWA runs hundreds of schools for Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank, Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

It also distributes aid and provides teacher training centres, health clinics and social services.

Many analysts, including Israelis, warn that closing the agency without having an effective replacement could lead to further poverty and perhaps violence.

“While UNRWA is far from perfect, the Israeli defence establishment, and the Israeli government as a whole, have over the years come to the understanding that all the alternatives are worse for Israel,” Peter Lerner, a former spokesman for the Israeli military, wrote in an opinion piece in Haaretz newspaper last week.

“In an extreme situation, the administration of those refugees could fall on Israel’s shoulders.”