UN Chief voices concern over US move to withhold aid for Palestinian refugees

UN Chief voices concern over US move to withhold aid for Palestinian refugees

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said he was “very concerned” over U.S. decision to withhold about half the initial aid it planned to give the U.N. agency mandated to care for Palestinian refugees.

In announcing that it would provide $60 million to the U.N. Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA) while withholding a further $65 million for now, the U.S. State Department said the UN agency needed to make unspecified reforms.

“First of all, UNRWA is not a Palestinian institution, it is a UN institution,” the UN chief said at a press conference at UN Headquarters in New York on Tuesday.

The services UNRWA provides “are of extreme importance, not only for the well-being of this population, and there is a serious humanitarian concern here,” he said. “But also in my opinion and the opinion that is shared by most international observers, including some Israeli ones, it is an important factor of stability.”

Jordan and Lebanon are already under extreme strain from having to support refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. If those countries also suddenly face the burden of having to deal with under- or unfunded schools, medical clinics and other services, “this will create a very, very serious problem,” Guterres said, “and we’ll do everything we can to avoid this situation to occur.”

The U.N. chief also noted that the “relationship between the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority is difficult and complex at the moment,” and he hoped it would not undermine the possibility of peace talks.

UNRWA’s top 10 donors provide over 80 percent of the agency’s income. They include after the United States, the European Union, Germany, Sweden, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands. UNRWA provides education and health services to five million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said in a statement that the reduced U.S. contribution “threatens one of the most successful and innovative human development endeavors in the Middle East.”

The decision to keep back some money is likely to compound the difficulty of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to further undermine Arabs’s faith that the United States can act as an impartial arbitrator.

The last talks collapsed in 2014, partly because of Israel’s opposition to an attempted unity pact between the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions and to Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state, among other factors.

“We hope that the US administration and Congress can cooperate in reversing this politically motivated cut in aid before its effects ripple through the Middle East,” Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement.

“The move will have devastating consequences for vulnerable Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, including hundreds of thousands of refugee children in the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria who depend on the agency for their education,” said Egeland, a former Norwegian foreign minister and former UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

“It will also deny their parents a social safety net that helps them to survive, and undermine the UN agency’s ability to respond in the event of another flare up in the conflict,” Egeland said.

Last month, the Trump administration wielded its first U.N. veto to block a Security Council resolution rejecting the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there.

The United States was isolated in the vote, with the other 14 council members voting in favor of the text. Arab nations then moved to the General Assembly, where there is no veto, and got the measure adopted with overwhelming support.

“The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in the General Assembly for the very act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned ahead of the vote.