The Trump Administration has targeted UNRWA as a pressure tactic to force the Palestinians to accept its demands, the organization’s Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl told The Jerusalem Post.
It is part of a US move to politicize humanitarian aid, the Swiss diplomat warned.
Krähenbühl spoke with the paper less than a week after the US’s historic decision to defund the premier international body that has serviced Palestinian refugees for the last 70 years.
The defunding decision “was evidently political in nature and not related to UNRWA’s performance,” he said. “What I cannot do is to become involved in the politics of the way in which a country wishes to put pressure on another actor, in this case the US on the Palestinian Authority.”
It wants “to use the humanitarian funding that comes to UNRWA as another piece of leverage,” Krähenbühl said. “On this I have no influence. There is nothing I can do.”
Krähenbühl said he feels on solid ground with his claim because in November 2017 he concluded a series of discussions with the US officials in preparation for the renewal of UNRWA’s framework agreement with the US State Department.
The agreement, a copy of which is still posted on the State Department website, was signed on December 7, the day after US President Donald Trump announced that he planned to relocate the American Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
The agreement, which UNRWA believed would allow it to continue to receive an annual allocation of $360 million from the US, was supposed to remain in effect until December 31, 2019.
But just one month later, UNRWA received a check for $60 million, half of what it had expected would be a $120 million payment.
The absent funds already sparked a financial crisis in the organization and sparked fears of further cutbacks from UNRWA’s largest donor to its $1.2 billion budget.
Israel and US right-wing politicians have long had a schizophrenic relationship with UNRWA, holding that it creates a permanent class of Palestinian refugees, turning that final status issue in a ticking bomb which threatens to destroy any hope of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The problem is generated by UNRWA’s definition of who is a Palestinian refugee, which includes descendants of those who fled or were driven from their homes in 1948.
They took issue with ties some staff in the organization have held with Hamas, and warned that UNRWA promoted incitement in its schools.
But behind the scenes, Israel has worked intensely with the organization, with many in the IDF lauding its role as a social service agency essential to regional stability.
On Tuesday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told reporters in New York that UNRWA was a political organization that had a growing and unsustainable population of refugees.
“Don’t blame the US for a faulty political organization that I do not think is doing justice to the Palestinian community,” Haley said.
At the start of the year, Haley said when the US gave $60 million to UNRWA, it received no acknowledgment for its efforts.
“UNRWA didn’t say ‘Thank you.’ They criticized us and attacked us for not giving more. There is no one who has given more money to the Palestinians than the US.”
But in the December 2017 US framework agreement with UNRWA, the US seemed not to have a problem with the way the UNRWA determined Palestinian refugee status when it came to funding.
The State Department stated then it was “committed to continuing its partnership with UNRWA to assist UNRWA-registered refugees and other persons falling under the mandate of UNRWA until a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement is achieved and UNRWA’s mandate ends.”
In that same document State Department also lauded the organization’s reform efforts, noting that it was consistent with goals it had set out for the organization.
“Ongoing UNRWA reform initiatives have improved management capacity, increased program quality and efficiency, and increased financial sustainability and accountability of the Agency,” the State Department document said.
Then, Krähenbühl said, tensions increased with the Palestinian Authority, and the whole story changed.
The full text of this interview will appear in Wednesday’s Jerusalem Post.