Netanyahu Backs Trump on Palestinian Refugee AgencyBy
Says UNRWA ‘wants to destroy Israel,’ must be dismantled
Palestinians suspect U.S.-Israeli ‘coup against peace process’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the dismantlement of the United Nations agency that cares for Palestinian refugees, backing U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to cut funding unless Palestinians cooperate with his Middle East peace efforts.
Netanyahu accused the UN Relief and Works Agency of exploiting the plight of Palestinian refugees “in order to destroy the state of Israel,” according to a texted copy of his remarks at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “UNRWA must disappear from the world,” Netanyahu said.
The Israeli leader said he agrees “completely” with Trump’s Jan. 2 Twitter message in which he complained that the U.S. pays the Palestinians “hundreds of millions of dollars a year” and in return gets “no appreciation or respect.” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, later told reporters the administration would cut off aid to UNRWA if the Palestinians refused to take part in peace talks with Israel.
The U.S., which is the biggest contributor to the agency, put a hold on a Jan. 2 payment of $125 million while the administration reviews its next steps, two people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News, asking not to be identified discussing private deliberations. An UNRWA official in the Gaza Strip said the organization hadn’t been notified of any aid freeze.
Netanyahu said it was “absurd” that UNRWA was set up in 1949 exclusively to distribute aid to Palestinians, proposing that funds be provided instead through the UN agency that cares for all other refugee populations around the world. Israel has long accused UNRWA of being under the thumb of Hamas, the militant group that has run the Gaza Strip since 2007 while Palestinians have launched more than 18,000 rockets and mortars into its territory.
Israel says UNRWA facilities have provided cover for rocket launchers and that some of the teachers at its schools demonize the Jewish state. Israeli shelling of Gaza in its 2014 military battle with Hamas killed 44 Palestinians, many of whom had taken shelter in UNRWA facilities, according to the UN.
UNRWA Spokesman Chris Gunness said the agency must continue its activities until Israel and the Palestinians resolve their decades-long conflict.
“What perpetuates the refugee crisis is the failure of the parties to deal with the issue,” Gunness said in emailed comments.
More than 4.5 million Palestinians are registered as refugees, of whom some 1.5 million live in 59 UNRWA refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, according to the agency’s website.
Palestinian officials condemned Trump’s tweet, calling it “an American-Israeli coup against the peace process” and appealing to the UN to step in.
“This is a dramatic and clear transition to the stage of dictating solutions on the Palestinian and Arab sides through a kind of coercive surgical operation,” the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an emailed statement Saturday.
— With assistance by Saud Abu Ramadan