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US seeking fundamental changes at UN agency supporting Palestinians

President Donald Trump's administration believes the United Nations agency tasked with supporting Palestinia...

Posted: Aug 7, 2018 7:22 AM
Updated: Aug 7, 2018 7:22 AM

President Donald Trump's administration believes the United Nations agency tasked with supporting Palestinian refugees "has perpetuated and exacerbated the refugee crisis," a senior Trump administration official said Monday.

Much of the Trump administration's Middle East peace plan remains a closely-guarded secret, but emails newly leaked to Foreign Policy magazine and a statement from a senior administration official are shedding light on the administration's dim view of the UN's Palestinian refugee agency, known as UNRWA.

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"UNRWA's mandate has perpetuated and exacerbated the refugee crisis and must be changed so the Palestinian people can reach their full potential," a senior administration told CNN in a statement on Monday.

'Honest and sincere'

The statement followed a Foreign Policy report that revealed leaked emails in which Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser overseeing the peace effort, pressed fellow officials to engage in "an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA."

"This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn't help peace," Kushner wrote in emails dated January 11 and obtained by Foreign Policy. A senior administration official did not dispute the authenticity of the emails to CNN.

UNRWA services more than 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, offering educational, health and social services across the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The agency educates about 500,000 children in nearly 700 schools and UNRWA doctors see more than 9 million patients in nearly 150 primary health clinics every year.

The US had been the single largest donor to the UNRWA. The decision to cut funding left UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres "very concerned" about the impact and sparked what UNRWA officials said was the most serious financial crisis in the agency's 70-year history.

Kushner's email came days before the Trump administration announced plans to cut US funding to the refugee agency by more than half. That decision was made following Palestinian officials' refusal to engage in peace talks with the Trump administration after it announced plans to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

The senior administration official declined to confirm how the administration would like to see UNRWA's mandate "changed" and declined to say whether the Trump administration believes Palestinians living in other countries should maintain their refugee status.

The debate over the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes in what is now Israel -- long upheld by Palestinian officials -- is among the thorniest issues that must be addressed as part of a resolution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Foreign Policy that Kushner believes Palestinian refugees must be resettled in the countries where they currently reside.

"[Kushner said] the resettlement has to take place in the host countries and these governments can do the job that UNRWA was doing," Ashrawi told FP.

The senior Trump administration official declined to respond to the suggestion that Kushner opposes Palestinian refugees' right to return to a future Israeli or Palestinian state.

Financial crunch

"The US policy regarding UNRWA has been under frequent evaluation and internal discussion. The administration will announce its policy on UNRWA in due course," the official said. "UNRWA's financial situation has been unsustainable for a long time, and for years we have voiced the need for UNRWA to seek out new voluntary funding streams, increase financial burden sharing among donors and find ways to reduce expenditures."

The official also said the US remains one of the largest funders of UNRWA, despite cutting its funding to the UN agency to $60 million.

UNRWA's top official Pierre Krahenbuhl said in April the US has withheld $305 million in funding this year.

The stiff drop in US funding has left the refugee agency in a financial crunch, even as other countries have stepped up to partially fill the funding gap, forcing UNRWA to cut staff and change or scale back programs, including those for mental health and food assistance.

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