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Palestinian refugees fear US funding cut to UN agency will severely worsen conditions

Washington was by far the largest donor to the UN agency that serves hundreds of thousands of Palestinians
Some Palestinian UN employees attempted to set themselves on fire after losing jobs to funding cuts (Reuters)

Palestinian refugees have voiced concern and fear over the Trump administration's decision to halt funding to a UN refugee agency, warning it could lead to more poverty, anger, and instability in the Middle East. 

The US announcement on Friday that it will no longer support the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has deepened a cash crisis at the agency and heightened tensions with the Palestinian leadership.

The 68-year-old agency provides services to about five million Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza.

Most are descendants of the roughly 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled the fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel's creation.

In Gaza, Nashat Abu El-Oun, a refugee and father of eight, said: "The situation is bad, and it will become worse ... People can hardly afford living these days, and if they became unable to earn their living they will begin thinking of unlawful things."

Some of the most disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable people on this planet are likely to suffer

- Chris Gunness, UNWRA Spokesperson

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Friday that UNRWA's business model and fiscal practices were an "irredeemably flawed operation" and that the agency's "endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable".

UNRWA rejected the criticisms, with spokesman Chris Gunness describing the agency as "a force for regional stability".

Speaking in Jordan, where more than two million registered Palestinian refugees live, including 370,000 in 10 refugee camps, Gunness told the Reuters news agency: "It is a deeply regrettable decision ... some of the most disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable people on this planet are likely to suffer."

Gunness said UNRWA provides health clinics, schooling for 526,000 refugee children across Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and food assistance to 1.7 million people - a million of them in Gaza.

The agency will now ask existing donors for more money and seek new sources of income.

"Our funding gap is $217m ... so although we have opened up our schools just this week we have made it clear that we only have money until the end of September," he said.

Funding concerns

The US, by far UNRWA’s biggest donor, slashed funding earlier this year, paying out only $60m of a first installment in January and withholding $65m. It had promised $365m for the whole year.

Washington said the agency needed to make unspecified reforms and called on the Palestinians to renew peace talks with Israel.

The European Union meanwhile said on Saturday that it would continue supporting UNWRA. Both the EU and its member states are collectively the largest contributors to UNWRA's budget. 

The last Palestinian-Israeli peace talks collapsed in 2014, partly because of Israel's opposition to an attempted unity pact between the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions and to illegal Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state.

There was no immediate comment from the Israeli government to the US decision, which was issued during the Jewish sabbath.

An anonymous official in the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, told the AFP news agency on Saturday that Israel supported the US decision to cut funding from UNWRA.

"Consolidating the refugee status of Palestinians is one of the problems that perpetuate the conflict," the official said.

On Friday, before the US decision was confirmed, the head of the international UN refugee agency UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, was asked by reporters in Beirut if his agency could assume UNRWA's role.

"The Palestinian refugees in the region are the responsibility of UNRWA," he said, making no further comment.

'Stealing land'

The UNRWA move is the latest in a number of actions by the Trump administration that have alienated the Palestinians, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

That move was a reversal of the longtime US policy and led the Palestinian leadership to boycott Washington's diplomatic efforts led by Jared Kushner, Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat on Saturday accused Washington of implementing the agenda of "Israeli extremists who have done nothing but to destroy the prospect of peace between Palestinians and Israelis".

Speaking in Ramallah, he said: "The United States may have the right to say that we don't want to give taxpayers' money, but who gave the US the right to approve the stealing of my land, my future, my aspirations, my capital, my Aqsa Mosque, my Holy Sepulchre Church?"

In Jalazone refugee camp near Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Ayoub Abeidi, whose family once lived in what is now the city of Lod in Israel, said the decision was political.

"Trump wants to finish off UNRWA so he can terminate the right of refugees [to return]," said Abeidi, 53. "Our right to return exists and neither Trump nor anybody else can cancel it."

Successive Israeli government have ruled out any right of return, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority