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Irish Foreign Minister warns against cuts to UNWRA funding, speaking to i24NEWS

Le Premier ministre Benyamin Netanyahou et le ministre irlandais des Affaires étrangères Simon Coveney
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Simon Coveney says there are enough pressures on the Palestinians without undermining the work the agency

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney doubled down on his support for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) amid strident calls from the US and Israel to phase out funding, in an exclusive interview with i24NEWS on Thursday.

“We think UNRWA is playing a hugely important role,” Coveney said. “And while everybody would accept that we don’t want to see another 70 years of UNWRA, this is about basic healthcare, education and trying to provide hope for the future.”

The UN agency is the largest source of aid for Palestinian refugees providing them with access to education, healthcare, social services and employment across the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. UNRWA is also active in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.

“Today, I committed to UNRWA 4 million euros of Irish taxpayers money for 2018,” the Irish Minister said, reaffirming his support for the agency. “Last year we topped this sum up with an extra 1.5 million.”

In recent weeks the US, UNRWA’s biggest donor, has threatened to sever its assistance to the agency unless the Palestinians agree to return to the negotiating table with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, likewise, has expressed support for the “gradual” phasing out of the body and incorporation into the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“The way to resolve things is not to reduce or divert the funding,” Coveney told i24NEWS, opposing calls by the US and Israel. “The way to do it is to find a political solution to a conflict that has been going on for too long. UNRWA will phase itself out and eventually divert its resources into a new Palestinian state. I think there are enough pressures on the Palestinians without undermining the work the agency does.”

Coveney had himself visited UNRWA facilities ahead of the interview. “I went to a UNRWA school this morning and saw the work they do educating young Palestinians and teaching them to be optimistic about the future. I think we should continue to support UNRWA infrastructure until we find a way of solving the core political problems that are really at the heart of this.”

i24NEWS interviewer Owen Alterman went on to question Foreign Minister Coveney over Ireland’s support for a Palestinian NGO that has petitioned the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate—and potentially prosecute—Israelis for international crimes.

Speaking of the organisation Al-Haq, which does human rights monitoring from Ramallah, Coveney said Ireland gives it a “small” amount of funding and insisted on the crucial role of civil society organisations when it comes to sustaining a healthy democracy.

“We do believe in allowing NGOs to challenge political systems and governments, that's part of the inconvenience of democracy at times and holding democracies to account”, he said.

“If you are a country occupying a territory with the responsibilities that come from it, you should expect to be put under the microscope”, he added.

The Israeli government has put a lot of pressure on a number of local NGOs in the last few years, such as left-wing organisations B'Tselem and Breaking the Silence, which criticize Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

Irish Foreign Minister Coveney has reiterated his support for a two-state solution whereby the West Bank would be part of the new Palestinian state, as well as his criticism of President Trump’s unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The recognition of Jerusalem in the absence of a process gave Palestinians the impression that the US was more focused on the concerns of one side than the other, making it harder to achieve a solution”, he said.

Addressing the issue of Palestinian reaction to the Jerusalem declaration (PA President Mahmoud Abbas said it was the end of the US role as mediator), Coveney told i24NEWS that Washington remains a “key player.”

“It is unlikely we will see a negotiated peace process without the US,” Coveney said.

Asked whether Ireland intends to recognize a Palestinian state, Coveney replied it does but only in the context of a concerted agreement involving both the Israeli and the Palestinian side.

Coveney did say Israel has unique challenges.

"Israel has very legitimate and very significant security concerns, which they need to manage," said Coveney. "A country like Ireland doesn't have anything like that pressure."

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