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Netanyahu backs US threats to 'gradually' close UN Palestinian refugee agency

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on January 7, 2018
ABIR SULTAN (POOL/AFP)
UNRWA runs hundreds of schools for Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called for the closure of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, in a show of support for US President Donald Trump threats to cut Palestinian aid several days earlier.

"I agree completely with US President Donald Trump's sharp criticism of UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees],"  remarked Netanyahu at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting. 

Israel has long viewed the UN agency, known as UNRWA, as biased against it, an allegation the agency strongly denies, saying it is only providing necessary services to Palestinians.

Israeli officials also criticize the agency's method of classifying refugees, with descendants also eligible to register.

"UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem," Netanyahu said while also lauding Trump at the beginning of his weekly cabinet meeting.

He said that while millions of other refugees around the world were cared for by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Palestinians have their own body which also treats "great-grandchildren of refugees -- who are not refugees, but who are cared for by UNRWA."

"This absurd situation must be ended," the premier stated.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said that its mandate came from the UN General Assembly "whose members give wide and strong support to the agency's humanitarian and human development mission".

"What perpetuates the refugee crisis is the failure of the parties to deal with the issue," he wrote in a statement.

"This needs to be resolved by the parties to the conflict in the context of peace talks, based on UN resolutions and international law."

In June, Netanyahu said he had raised the issue with Washington's UN envoy Nikki Haley.

On Wednesday, Trump threatened to cut aid worth more than $300 million annually to the Palestinians in a bid to force them to negotiate.

The United States has long provided the Palestinian Authority with much-needed budgetary support and security assistance, as well as an additional $304 million for UN programs in the West Bank and Gaza.

A Friday report on Israeli Channel 10 television said the US had frozen a payment due to UNRWA, but a spokesman for the UN organization said on Saturday that they "have not been informed directly of a formal decision either way by the US administration."

UNRWA runs hundreds of schools for Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

It also distributes aid and provides teacher training centers, health clinics and social services.

Many analysts, including Israelis, warn that closing the agency without having an effective replacement could lead to further poverty and perhaps violence.

"While UNRWA is far from perfect, the Israeli defense establishment, and the Israeli government as a whole, have over the years come to the understanding that all the alternatives are worse for Israel," Peter Lerner, a former spokesman for the Israeli military, wrote in an opinion piece in Haaretz newspaper last week.

"In an extreme situation, the administration of those refugees could fall on Israel's shoulders."

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