Jordan Scrambles to Recoup Funds for Palestinians Lost to U.S. Cuts | Editor's Choice | Ammon News

Jordan Scrambles to Recoup Funds for Palestinians Lost to U.S. Cuts

[9/19/2018 7:37:27 AM]

AMMONNEWS - Jordan has embarked on an overseas lobbying campaign to replace funding that the Trump administration pulled last month for an agency that supports hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the kingdom.

Jordan, a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East, fears the funding cuts could destabilize an economy already strained by more than 658,000 Syrian refugees, and ignite social unrest by cutting vital services to the Palestinians.

Jordan’s King Abdullah and the country’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, seek to replace the $300 million the U.S. pulled from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency this year, representing about a quarter of the agency’s budget. Efforts to bridge the gap have left a $200 million shortfall.

Last week Jordan convened a meeting of the Arab League in Egypt to solicit more funds. Saudi Arabia and others pledged support but not additional money. Next week, Jordan will host a conference with Sweden, Germany, Japan and others on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. They hope to fill the gap and plan for the agency’s future after the U.S. ends its remaining $60 million contribution next year. The U.S. isn’t expected to attend.

The agency, known as Unrwa, supports Palestinians who fled their homes in what is now Israel around the time of the 1948 war that followed the country’s founding. Those people and their descendants now number about 5 million, including at least two million in Jordan.

Both the Trump administration and Israel argue that the agency fosters a culture of dependency that prolongs Palestinian separateness. They say preserving refugee status perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A Trump administration official said the U.S. welcomes efforts by Jordan and others to solicit additional funds for UNRWA, but said such initiatives won’t succeed.

“It is time to acknowledge UNRWA’s model of operations is failing,” the official said, adding that the U.S. hopes to begin discussing moving Unrwa’s services to host governments or other organizations. Officials said the U.S. has offered to provide Jordan with humanitarian funds to replace Unrwa funds.

The Unrwa cuts come as the Trump administration slashes more than $200 million in bilateral aid for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as part of efforts to pressure Palestinian officials to resume peace talks.

Drastic cuts to Unrwa could push thousands of Palestinian children from school in Jordan and cripple essential services for hundreds of thousands of refugees, such as medical clinics and trash collection, Jordanian officials and analysts say.

​They also risk​ sparking​protests​in Jordan, a pro-Western monarchy that in recent years has provided a critical bulwark to the violent extremism emanating from neighboring Iraq and Syria.

Jordan’s economy, buffeted by the unrest next door, is already fragile. To cut high government debt, Jordan removed subsidies this year on bread and raised taxes on a range of products, a new burden for millions of Jordanians.

Jordan’s stability also is a concern for Israel next door. King Abdullah and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in June to discuss ties and regional developments.

“Jordan is the quintessential buffer state,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The security of this historically pro-West, pro-U. S., moderate Arab kingdom has been considered a vital U.S. interest for decades.”

In its quest for funds, Jordan wants to avoid antagonizing the Trump administration. The U.S. is Jordan’s most important guarantor of security, offering a $1.3 billion aid package this year for its military and economy.

“The way in which we’re managing this whole sort of effort is not to make it as if it’s the rest of the world against the U.S.,” Mr. Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, said in an interview.

Unrwa officials said they’ve heard little from the Trump administration about why it is cutting contributions. “I am very prepared to sit down and have critical reviews of Unrwa’s work—any question that comes up, from operations, to accountability, to neutrality and others,” said Pierre Krahenbuhl, Unrwa’s commissioner general.

Caught in the budget battle are people like Saadi Shalaan. The 57-year-old electrical engineer, a Jordanian citizen whose parents were born near Jerusalem, sends his children to free Unrwa schools in the Wihdat refugee camp where they live. Private schools are too expensive, he said. Public schools are overcrowded and unable to accommodate more students, officials say.

Like Mr. Shalaan, about 400,000 Palestinians live in 10 official refugee camps and more than 120,000 children are enrolled in Unrwa schools. In 2017, Unrwa spent $175.8 million on operations in Jordan.

Unrwa’s mandate is up for a renewal vote at the U.N. late next year. It last passed in 2016 with a wide majority and Trump administration officials concede it is likely to do so again.

Still, Jordanian officials fear that an increasingly pessimistic outlook among Palestinian refugees over their future, coupled with the country’s economic woes, could ignite violent protests. That moment, officials say, may come when thousands of students can’t return to school because of a lack of Unrwa funding.

“Ultimately you suffocate those people,” said Mr. Safadi. “You send them further toward despair and anger.”

*Wall Street

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