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Trump Administration Seeks To Phase Out Main Program For Palestinian Refugees


Later this month, at a conference in Bahrain, the U.S. will try to generate investment in the Palestinian territories. It's part of a peace deal effort. But the Trump administration has cut its money to the main U.N. agency serving Palestinian refugees. And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, that agency is holding its own donors conference at the same time as the Bahrain meeting.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, was supposed to be a temporary fix, aiding Palestinian refugees until a political solution could be found in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With no solution in sight, the organization is now 70 years old. But the Trump administration's negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, argues it is broken.


JASON GREENBLATT: UNRWA's business model, which is inherently tied to an endlessly and exponentially expanding community of beneficiaries, is in permanent crisis mode; that is why the United States decided that it will no longer commit to funding this irredeemably flawed operation.

KELEMEN: Greenblatt told the U.N. Security Council in May that there's no need to wait for a political solution to end the Palestinians' dependency on the U.N. He's promoting the investors meeting in Bahrain on June 25 as a new way to spur development in the Palestinian territories. Gwyn Lewis, who runs UNWRA's operations in the West Bank, says Palestinians do need international investment.

GWYN LEWIS: But that can't happen unless you have an educated population, unless there's relative stability. And that's what UNWRA provides; it provides basic services to a significant number of refugees and a very well-respected education system.

KELEMEN: When the U.S. cut funds to UNWRA, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries pitched in to keep those schools with half a million students open. But some programs had to be scaled back, and UNWRA couldn't replace retiring teachers, says Matthias Schmale, who works in Gaza.

MATTHIAS SCHMALE: The next big issue now is, do we have enough money to open the next school year, at the end of August? And right now we don't.

KELEMEN: He says UNWRA is hoping to raise $1.2 billion when donors get together at the U.N. on June 25. U.S. officials will be in Bahrain that day, laying out alternatives for development. Schmale says the Palestinians are leery.

SCHMALE: You will not find anyone who will argue against economic recovery; the question is, at what political price. Now, if this would come at the cost of giving up the right to statehood or the right to full political participation in a state, Palestinians will reject that; that's very clear.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration has not said whether its peace plan will call for a Palestinian state, and U.S. officials may not release it until after a new round of elections in Israel this fall. In the meantime, Gwyn Lewis says UNWRA has to fulfill its mandate.

LEWIS: Just looking forward unless, you know, there is something very constructive in terms of a peace agreement moving forward, UNWRA's going to be around for least a couple more years. So without the U.S., I don't think we're very sustainable.

KELEMEN: As she and her colleague made the rounds in Washington, they spent much of their time on Capitol Hill. The Democratic-led House Appropriations Committee is taking steps to restore funding for UNWRA and for U.S. programs that help Palestinians.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALLIS ALPS' "RUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.