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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Mahmoud Abbas backing for refugee agency falls on deaf ears

UN General Assembly 2018: Israeli PM Netanyahu reiterated Washington’s stance that agency is irrelevant

Palestinians watch a broadcast showing a speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the U.N. General Assembly shown on TV in the West Bank city of Nablus. Reuters
Palestinians watch a broadcast showing a speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the U.N. General Assembly shown on TV in the West Bank city of Nablus. Reuters

With a united front from Washington and Tel Aviv that threatens to deal the deathblow to the dream of a viable Palestinian state, President Mahmoud Abbas took to the stage of the UN on Thursday to try and roll back the tide.

Railing against his American counterpart Donald Trump’s moves in favour of Israel and against the Palestinian cause, Mr Abbas called on the international community to take action to save the two-state solution and offer Palestinians a future.

As well as calling on Mr Trump to reverse the US embassy move to Jerusalem and restore funding to UNRWA – the UN body for Palestinian refugees – Mr Abbas is facing perhaps the biggest crisis in the history of his people.

In what he called an American “assault” on the Palestinians, Mr Abbas demanded the General Assembly mitigate US cuts to UNRWA and “ensure support to this agency as a matter of international responsibility”.

His call came a day after Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank protested cuts to the agency that have seen hundreds left without jobs, salaries slashed by 40 per cent and warnings that vital health and education services could be closed “within weeks”. One man even tried to set himself on fire in July to highlight the plight that will befall Palestinians as UNRWA pulls back support.

Around 13,000 people work for the agency in Gaza, where more than two-thirds of the roughly 2 million residents are eligible for aid. UNRWA says more than 200,000 Palestinians attend its schools in the strip.

But that call and the fallout from the cuts fell on deaf ears across much of the assembly. While several Arab and European states have pledged additional funding since the beginning of the year, the agency still faces a massive shortfall.

Less than an hour after he spoke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the key figures to lobby against the agency, reiterated Mr Trump’s position that the body is irrelevant.

He said the agency “perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem” and claimed that the agency needed to urgently reform for it to receive any American funds.

Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu have also called into question the very status of Palestinian refugees, threatening changes that would end the right of return for roughly 6 million people displaced around the region.

Mr Trump, who has acted in support of Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing government, said on Wednesday while alongside his key Middle East ally that funding “will start up again” if the Palestinians came back to the table.

His call ignores the fact that the previous round of talks in 2013-14, led by former US Secretary of State John Kerry, fell apart when Israel walked out at the last minute. At the time, Mr Kerry attributed the failure of those talks to Israel.

But, for Palestinians and their leaders in Ramallah, US actions undermine any hope that if they did come back to the table, they would get what they wanted.

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Read more:

'Jerusalem is not for sale' Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tells the UN

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the UN

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A much-vaunted peace plan worked on by Mr Trump’s closest aides has yet to be released, but he has given a timeline of up to four months for Washington’s proposals to be rolled out.

Regardless, Palestinians have pre-emptively rejected any US proposal outright, saying Mr Trump’s actions speak louder than his words, and they show that there will be no fair deal for them at the end of the road.

As Palestinians look for any comfort amid a relentless Israeli-American campaign against the core threads of the Palestinian issue, the UN General Assembly has provided little.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior PLO official, summed up the feeling in the West Bank on Thursday.

“‘One-state/two-state/whatever’ is not policy! Pandering to extremist Zionist evangelicals, donors & Netanyahu is dangerous policy!” she wrote on Twitter.

“Illegal unilateral measures against Palestinians, Jerusalem and refugees,” she said, do not enhance peace, but “destroy peace”.

But some respite for them is that the US and Israel are largely acting alone in the wider international community. French President Emmanuel Macron and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have been the key world and regional figures to rail against Mr Trump’s policies on the conflict.

“What can resolve the crisis between Israel and Palestine? Not unilateral initiatives, nor trampling on the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to legitimate peace nor underestimating Israel's fair right to security,” the French leader said in his speech on Tuesday.

“There is no credible alternative to the two-state solution living side by side in peace and security with Jerusalem as capital.”

Unfortunately for the Palestinians, with a leader who one official said produced “nothing” new in his address on Thursday with all of the ammunition provided to him by the American and Israeli leaders, such words are all they can put their faith in right now.