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U.S. Funding Cut Reignites Debate on Palestinian Refugee Agency

JERUSALEM — In the Khan Younis Refugee Camp in Gaza, Mahmoud Ferwana, 59, huddled beneath a flimsy nylon-and-sheet-metal roof while rain drenched the rest of his squalid home’s sandy floor. He earns money collecting broken stones; his children scavenge for copper. But none of it amounts to a living.

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, New York Times

JERUSALEM — In the Khan Younis Refugee Camp in Gaza, Mahmoud Ferwana, 59, huddled beneath a flimsy nylon-and-sheet-metal roof while rain drenched the rest of his squalid home’s sandy floor. He earns money collecting broken stones; his children scavenge for copper. But none of it amounts to a living.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency is what reliably puts food in their mouths.

If that aid were to stop, Ferwana said Wednesday, “I and my children will die.”

That aid, to Ferwana and more than 5 million other Palestinians living in refugee camps across the Middle East, is now endangered by what the agency’s leaders are calling the worst financial crisis in its seven-decade history.

The United States, its biggest donor, announced this week that it was withholding $65 million from a scheduled payment of $120 million. The Trump administration said it was pressing for unspecified reforms from the agency, while also seeking to get Arab countries to contribute more.

In response, the relief agency said Wednesday that it would begin a fundraising campaign to try to close the gap before it is forced to cut vital safety-net services.

“We’re reaching out to official donors, obviously, but also to the Arab world, to untraditional donors in emerging markets and to individuals, in the hope that we can rapidly upscale the amounts they give to us,” said Chris Gunness, the agency’s chief spokesman.

The Trump administration’s move, which added to a deficit of around $150 million on the agency’s budget of nearly $1.25 billion, brought new attention to a sprawling agency that functions as a quasi-government in some areas of the Middle East and has courted controversy throughout most of its history. And it revived politically loaded questions about just who should qualify as refugees — and what is the proper role of the organization charged with caring for them.

The agency, known by the acronym UNRWA, was set up in 1949 to aid those who fled or were expelled from their homes during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Meant to be temporary, it defined refugees loosely and expanded that definition over time. One key difference between it and the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, critics say, is that UNRWA routinely allows refugee status to be passed down for generations. Another is that it does not remove people from its list who have acquired citizenship in a new country, so the number always increases.

Hence the Palestinian refugee population has grown from approximately 700,000 Palestinians who fled the wars in 1948 and 1967 to more than 5.2 million Palestinians living in UNRWA-administered camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria today.

Moreover, rather than working to reduce its rolls by resettling refugees in other countries, the agency has focused on helping refugees where they are until a political end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be reached.

“UNRWA would like nothing more than to shut up shop,” Gunness said. “But there has to first be a just and durable solution.”

The Arab states that have taken in the bulk of the refugees ask why they should grant them citizenship instead of helping them to return to their homes in what is now Israel.

The agency’s critics in Israel and in the United States say that UNRWA has perpetuated the problem by maintaining a steadily growing refugee population, which in turn means more refugees demanding a right of return.

“At the rate we’re going now, it’s going to be 15 million soon,” said Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, who has called for disbanding the agency and turning over its functions to other institutions, like the Palestinian Authority. “UNRWA will tell you they’ll leave the situation when there is a resolution to the conflict, but it’s a Catch-22: They are the gatekeepers for the one single issue that perpetuates the conflict from generation to generation.”

He said that freezing the agency’s money could be a good step if it forced Israel and the Palestinians to the table. “The endgame from a political standpoint has to be about fully ending refugee status and ending the right of return,” he said. “Otherwise, this is just going to come back in a different formulation.” The right of return for the refugees and their descendants has long been a stumbling block in the peace process, with Palestinians insisting on it and Israel objecting to it. Mediators have proposed settling the issue with a payment to the refugees, but such a deal would only be likely to happen as part of a negotiated peace settlement.

The brief against UNRWA is lengthy, timeworn and continually debated: that it awards too much of its aid, as in education and health care, based on refugee status, not need; that it often makes pronouncements that are anti-Israel, or, in the case of Gaza, too sympathetic to Hamas, with which it must coexist there; that its schools inculcate hostility to Israel or even breed terrorists.

“They hide it behind a very thin facade, that all they care about is social and humanitarian services,” said Einat Wilf, a former Labor member of Knesset. “But it’s a Palestinian political organization, devoted to the Palestinian agenda of erasing Israel.”

The agency’s defenders say that it is the existence of the refugee population that sticks in the craw of those Israelis who do not want to acknowledge that their country’s creation displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and would prefer to deny the refugee problem or resolve it once and for all.

“Naturally, it draws attention to a particular group which is vulnerable,” said Mick Dumper, a politics professor at Exeter University who has studied the agency.

“But there isn’t a homeland that refugees can return to,” he added. “Palestine has been replaced by Israel. That means they’re stuck out there. So what do you do? Do you let them starve?”

A similar question is being asked by some Israelis. “The perpetuation of UNRWA is not the dream of any peace-loving person in Israel,” said Yossi Beilin, a longtime Israeli politician who helped initiate the Oslo process. “But it really deals with the most important matters — food, health, education, for every family.

“Only an ignorant person, like President Trump, who doesn’t understand the whole story, could say, ‘Tomorrow there is no UNRWA,’ because tomorrow, we will have to pay the price — either by violence if it erupts, or because of the need to help them. Who else will do that?”

While some critics of UNRWA imagine refugees being absorbed by Lebanon or Jordan, the two countries have dealt with them in different ways.

Palestinians in Jordan are generally better off, as most of the 2 million registered refugees there have citizenship and can work, do business and seek education.

The 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are generally seen as worse off.

Refugees in Lebanon are barred from working in a number of lucrative professions like law, medicine and engineering, as well as from owning land and registering businesses. As a result, most live in camps that have swelled over the decades into crowded slums, where poverty and unemployment are widespread. Very few have been granted Lebanese citizenship for fear that taking in so many Sunni Muslims would upset the country’s delicate sectarian balance. And many Lebanese have long argued that giving them rights and services would lessen the pressure on them to return to what is now Israel.

That is one point on which Israeli and its Arab neighbors agree, and it leaves the Palestinians in the middle, pawns in a geopolitical game.

Outside a falafel shop at the Shatila camp in Beirut, Fayal al-Ahmad, 61, who works with an affiliate of UNRWA that helps Palestinians from Syria, said that, one way or the other, “We need to get our rights.”

“If they’re going to claim we’re not refugees who deserve services, then they either need to begin providing naturalization, or they need to allow us to return to our homeland, to Palestine,” she said. “As the saying goes, ‘The sword has two blades.’”

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