WASHINGTON – The Trump administration announced officially on Friday that it will cut the entire U.S. aid budget to UNRWA, the UN agency in charge of assisting Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
The decision comes after weeks of speculation on the subject, conflicting reports and vague denials by administration officials. It could lead to disruptions in the agency’s work on the ground in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan and other countries in the region.
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“The administration has carefully reviewed the issue and determined that the United States will not make additional contributions to UNRWA,” the State Department announced.
“The fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years – tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially,” added spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
On Saturday, Hanan Ashrawi released a statement, on behalf of the PLO Executive Committee, in which she blasted the U.S. administration for its decision to stop funding the refugee agency, saying it was both “cruel and irresponsible.”
The move targets “the most vulnerable segment of Palestinian society,” the statement said.
The spokesman for UNRWA Chris Gunness expressed “deep regret and disappointment” at the U.S. decision in a statement released Friday night.
Gunness said that UNRWA rejects the assertion by Nauert that its programs are “irredeemably flawed.”
“Following today’s announcement, UNRWA will pursue with even greater determination and engagement its mobilization of existing partners – 20 of whom have to date contributed more money than in 2017, including countries from the Gulf, Asia and Europe – and of new ones,” Gunness said.
The announcement comes only a day after a State Department official denied that there were plans in Washington to change the policy regarding Palestinian “right of return.” The official, who responded to an Haaretz query following several recent reports in Israel and the U.S. on the subject, added that the administration was examining a number of policy options regarding this issue, and no decision has been made so far.
Just hours after the official made this statement, a new report in the Washington Post said that the administration is in fact planning to cut all U.S. funding to UNRWA, the UN agency in charge of assistance to Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The report echoed earlier reports by Israeli and American outlets. The State Department official, however, insisted that no decision on the matter has been made.
Earlier the U.S. official said, in reply to a question on the subject from Haaretz, that there is “no change at this time.”
The official added, however, that the administration is considering different policy prescriptions on how to solve the Palestinian refugee problem. “We continue to study and evaluate alternatives for an equitable resolution of all refugee issues,” the official said.
Also this week, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, made a similar statement during an conference in Washington.
UNRWA has stated in the past that should the U.S. decide to cut its aid to the agency, it will turn to other sources, mainly in the Arab world. Qatar has recently donated millions of dollars to UNRWA.
The UN Works and Relief Agency began operating in 1950, with the goal of aiding refugees from Palestine in various services. The U.S. is the largest donor to UNRWA, and last year transferred more than $360 million to the organization.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supports breaking up UNRWA, which he says perpetuates the refugee status of the Palestinians. Israel, however, has told Washington a number of times over the past year that a dramatic and sudden cut in the agency’s budget could lead to a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and the strengthening of Hamas’ power.