Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced his support for the U.S. decision Friday to halt funding for the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees, saying that “the United States did a very important thing.” U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, speaking at a pre-Rosh Hashanah event at his residence, also voiced his vigorous agreement.
Speaking during a visit to a school in the central Israeli community of Yad Binyamin Sunday, Netanyahu said the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, was actually harming the Palestinians by perpetuating their status as refugees.
“Have displaced people from all over the world not arrived in Israel? Have we kept them as refugees? No, we absorbed them.
That includes those who came from Arab countries. Did we perpetuate their refugee status? No,” he said.
Friedman, speaking in his Herzliya residence, said that up until now the conventional wisdom has been that “to solve a problem, throw money at it.”
“Since 1994, the United States has thrown more than $10 billion in humanitarian aid to Palestinians,” he said. “Without minimizing the importance of medical treatment and quality education for children—and we don’t, not even for a minute—we found that these expenditures were bringing the region no closer to peace or stability, not even by a millimeter. To spend hard-earned taxpayer dollars to fund stipends to terrorists and their families, to expend funds to perpetuate rather than mitigate refugee status, and to finance hate-filled textbooks—I ask you, how does that provide value to the United States or the region?”
The U.S., Friedman added, is “not in the business of, as they say, throwing good money after bad.”
“[But] that is not what happens with the Palestinians. They created a special institution, not to integrate the refugees and rehabilitate them, but to perpetuate refugee status,” said Netanyahu.
“UNRWA should close down and the refugees should be rehabilitated.”
The 68-year-old UNRWA provides services to about 5 million Palestinians across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 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.
The agency is also a major employer in the Palestinian territories.
On Friday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said 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 criticism, with spokesman Chris Gunness describing the agency as “a force for regional stability.”
The United States, by far UNRWA’s biggest donor, slashed funding earlier this year, paying out only $60 million of a first installment in January and withholding $65 million. It had promised $365 million for the entire year.
Washington said the agency needed to make unspecified reforms and called on the Palestinians to renew peace talks with Israel. In Lebanon on Friday, before the U.S. decision was confirmed, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was asked 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.
The UNRWA move is the latest in a number of actions by the Trump administration that have angered Palestinians, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
On Saturday, the Palestinians condemned the U.S. decision to end its decades of funding for the U.N. agency, calling this an attack on the Palestinian people and accusing the Trump administration of trying to remove sensitive core issues from the negotiating table even while it says it is preparing a Middle East peace initiative.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Washington of implementing the agenda of “Israeli extremists who have done nothing but to destroy the prospect of peace.”
“What is the American administration doing? They are preempting, prejudging issues reserved for permanent status,” Erekat said in Ramallah. “They are undermining the moderate forces in Palestine and Israel. Those elements that want to achieve peace peacefully based on a two-state solution are being destroyed.”
He said extremists across the region had been given “gifts.”
“The United States may have the right to say that we don’t want to give taxpayers’ money, but who gave the U.S. the right to approve the stealing of my land, my future, my aspirations, my capital, my Aqsa mosque, my Holy Sepulcher Church?” he said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said the U.S. decision “does not serve peace but rather strengthens terrorism in the region” and urged the U.N. to take a “firm stand” against the Americans.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem accused the United States of going after UNRWA to eliminate the Palestinian right to return to their future homes.
“It’s clear that Trump has shifted from taking sides with the Israeli enemy to being a partner in the assault on our Palestinian people’s rights,” he said. “All these decisions will not stop our people’s struggle to gain freedom and return.”
Michael Oren, deputy minister for Public Diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s Office, said the Palestinians “must internalize that the ending of American assistance for UNRWA stems from the American administration’s efforts to revive the peace process and bring the Palestinians back to the table. Ending American aid to UNRWA is a positive and essential step in any effort to achieve peace sometime in the future.”
“The organization is not a vital component for peace but a clear, blatant obstacle to peace. UNRWA’s sponsorship of schools can go to other relief organizations, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. From here on in, any side that leaves the negotiating table should expect to pay a price.”
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, under fire for his anti-Semitic comments and support for terrorists, also offered his thoughts on the U.S. move.
“Shameful for the U.S. to end its funding for UNRWA, a vital U.N. refugee agency. The U.K. must help to fill the gap by boosting its contributions. Support for Palestinian refugees is a vital commitment until there is a just and viable settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict,” he said.