UNRWA officials are hitting back after a US proposal to remove the agency’s mandate by calling on countries hosting Palestinian refugees to take over food aid services from the group.
Commissioner of UNRWA Pierre Krähenbühl spoke at a news conference in Gaza on Thursday where he gave his reassurances that the agency’s mandate to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees across the Middle East will continue.
“Palestinian refugees should remember that the mandate is protected by the [United Nations] General Assembly, and of course, we will engage with member states to ensure what we hope is a safe renewal of that mandate,” Krahenbuhl said.
The commissioner’s statements came a day after Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s envoy to the Middle East, addressed officials at a UN Security Council meeting and argued for the dismantlement of the refugee agency.
“We need to engage with host governments to start a conversation about planning the transition of UNRWA services to host governments, or to other international or local non-governmental organisations, as appropriate,” Greenblatt said, following a briefing from Krahenbuhl.
He condemned UNRWA for “falling short” on funding, criticizing the agency for “currently running on fumes, surviving on a surge in foreign donations in 2018.”
Greenblatt went on to say “we need to be honest about the situation. UNRWA is a bandaid and the Palestinians who use its services deserve better,” reiterating the Trump administration’s widely criticized narrative that the existence of the agency “perpetuates” the refugee issue, as opposed to Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories.
“Year after year, Palestinians in refugee camps were not given the opportunity to build any future; they were misled and used as political pawns and commodities instead of treated as human beings,” Greenblatt told the council.
Greenblatt’s comments are the latest in a series of inflammatory statements made by the US administration against Palestinians, specifically refugees.
The Trump administration has repeatedly targeted UNRWA, which provides life-saving aid and services to more than 5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, by gutting US funding to the agency — which previously stood at $300m annual donations — citing “misuse of funds.”
Trump and his officials have been quoted as saying that by defunding UNRWA, they “took the refugee issue off the table,” echoing the President’s statements about “taking Jerusalem off the table” by recognizing the city as Israel’s capital in 2017.
By taking core political issues like the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees “off the table,” the administration hopes to turn the final status issues into non-issues when peace negotiations come around.
Krahenbuhl rebuked Greenblatt for his statements, saying, “I unreservedly reject the accompanying narrative that suggests that somehow UNRWA is to blame for the continuation of the refugee-hood of Palestine refugees, of their growing numbers and their growing needs.”
“The fact that UNRWA still exists today is an illustration of the failure of the parties and the international community to resolve the issue politically – and one cannot deflect the attention onto a humanitarian organisation,” he said.
Earlier this month, UNRWA announced its fears that some 1 million Palestinians in Gaza — half of the territory’s population — “may not have enough food” come June due to the ongoing financial crisis.
Since the US decision to end all of its financial aid to the agency last year, UNRWA has been struggling to recover, in ways that affect the lives of the millions of Palestinian refugees it supports across the region.
The UN reported at the end of 2018 that despite a rise in humanitarian needs across the occupied Palestinian territory, funding levels for humanitarian interventions declined significantly: only US $221 million had been received, compared to the $540 million requested in the 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan.