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Israeli defence officials warn UNRWA cuts may strengthen Hamas: Report

Cuts in services in the Gaza Strip could leave a vacuum the Palestinian movement would be able to fill, Israel's leaders are told
A Palestinian boy rests at a United Nations food distribution center in Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. (Reuters)

Severe cuts to the United Nations' agency for Palestinians, UNRWA, could lead to a vacuum in services that may be filled by Hamas, Israel's defence officials warned the country's leaders on Sunday, according to Israeli daily Haaretz.

A lifeline for millions in the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, UNRWA provides aid and services to Palestinians.

However the United States, which is the agency's largest donor, is seeking to severely cut back its reach.

Last year the US gave more than $360m to UNRWA, but in January froze tens of millions of dollars slated to be transferred to the agency.

The US State Department on Friday announced it would cut $200m in aid for the occupied West Bank and Gaza, apparently at the direction of US President Donald Trump.

Gaza's food and education services are likely to be some of the hardest hit, in a coastal enclave already suffering deeply under an Israeli and Egyptian siege.

More than half of the Gaza Strip's two million residents rely on UNRWA for healthcare, food, education and employment.

The US cuts have already resulted in job losses at the agency. When aid worker Nadal Wishah was laid off by the agency he was moved to attempt to set himself alight in desperation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to see UNRWA totally dismantled.

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But according to Israeli defence officials the agency's regression could open the door to the Hamas movement, a sworn enemy of Israel and current ruler of the Gaza Strip, taking an even more prominent role in the coastal enclave.

Netanyahu believes the agency perpetuates Palestinians' refugee status.

Founded in 1949 to aid the 700,000 Palestinians who were forced from their homes in historic Palestine during the creation of Israel, UNRWA now aids some five million people, including the descendants of those displaced.

On Saturday, the Israel Television News Company reported that Trump intends to demand the number of Palestinians recognised as refugees by 90 percent.

The US is set to reject UNRWA's definition of a refugee, which it says is a person displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War or their descendants, according to the report.