Palestine Refugee Agency Chief Rejects U.S. Criticism After Cuts

(Bloomberg) -- The head of the United Nations agency that oversees help to Palestinian refugees rejected U.S. arguments that his organization is poorly run and said the Trump administration’s decision to halt funding was a political move aimed at pressuring Palestinian leaders.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, the UN Relief and Works Agency’s commissioner-general, said U.S. officials haven’t given him a coherent reason for why they decided in January to slash funding to $60 million from $300 million and then, last week, to halt future funding. He defended the organization -- which says it educates and provides health care and food to 5.3 million Palestinian refugees -- as “the most scrutinized organization in the whole humanitarian system.’’

“The decision was taken to apply pressure on the Palestinian Authority and the new element this time around is to include humanitarian funding in the measures of pressure,’’ Krahenbuhl said in an interview this week. “I believe fundamentally this does not have anything to do with the performance of UNRWA.’’

The U.S. decision to stop funding UNRWA has plunged the agency into its worst financial crisis since it was created in 1949 to support Palestinian refugees until a solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute could be solved. Announcing that decision on Aug. 31, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the organization’s approach and fiscal practices were “irredeemably flawed’’ and “unsustainable.’’

Nauert also cited what she called UNRWA’s “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries” -- a reference to the growing number of descendants of the original refugees. The U.S. has previously called on other nations to step up their contributions, saying America should bear less of the burden of supporting Palestinian refugees.

Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said Wednesday that the organization continues to press nations for “critical funding” needed to let UNRWA do its job, saying it still faces “a rather large financial shortfall.”

Kushner Peace Plan

In the meantime, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is leading an effort to bring forward a long-awaited peace plan for the Middle East. Administration officials haven’t said when the proposal will be released, but Palestinian leaders have already accused the U.S. of being biased in favor of Israel.

The funding cuts come amid a broader fight at the UN, where the U.S. has sharply criticized other countries for what administration officials -- led by Ambassador Nikki Haley -- argue is a persistent and long-standing bias against Israel. Haley and other top officials were sharply critical of other UN members for condemning the U.S. decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

Krahenbuhl described an agency essentially caught in the middle of a massive feud between the U.S. and other countries over support for Israel. He said his agency, which has an annual budget of $1.2 billion, originally faced a funding gap of $460 million as a result of the U.S. decision but has narrowed that to about $200 million with pledges of assistance from other donors.

Krahenbuhl argued that any peace plan that ignores the aspirations of Palestinian refugees won’t succeed. He also described the rising frustration of the Palestinian people.

“When people’s horizons are closed, when there is no identifiable serious peace process on the horizon, when people’s opportunities to find employment are limited to a minimum, where people have lived with the uncertainty of being a refugee for so long, it’s clear that the pressure on the community, the individual stress and frustration is huge,’’ he said.

“I believe that whatever political solution is found between Israel and Palestine, it has to be a solution that is inclusive of the concerns and aspirations of both, and to wish to exclude now an entire community from the equation, 5.3 million Palestinian refugees, that of course is a concern.”

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