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Palestine: Refugees

Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what additional support they are providing for key services for Palestinian refugees, including schools, health, and emergency food and cash distribution, following the decision by the government of the United States to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

My Lords, we are consistently a major donor to UNRWA, having so far provided around £50 million in 2017-18 based on the agency meeting rigorous performance indicators. We contributed more than expected for this financial year to help to manage UNRWA’s funding gap in December. We are working closely with UNRWA and other key donors to do all that we can to maintain essential services for Palestinian refugees.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am reassured that the Government are working hard on closing the gap, but cuts of $50 million to $60 million are bound to have severe impacts on the ongoing work of UNRWA with women, children and, indeed, men. Will we do everything possible to make sure that these cuts do not have to take place? Will we recognise that cuts of that kind, coming so soon after the President’s precipitant action on Jerusalem, must inevitably raise anxiety and unrest about the level of commitment to the Palestinian people required of us by the Balfour Declaration?

As the noble Lord will know from his immense experience in this area, the Government and officials are having meetings with their opposite numbers in the United States, seeking to understand the position in relation to that. As we understand it, a tranche which was due to paid of about $65 million was withheld, the basis for which can vary depending on who you talk to. Part of the reason from the US is that it wants to encourage more international donors to step up to the plate to help to fund UNRWA—and, on that point, I think that it has something to say. The largest bilateral donors are Germany with $76 million, Sweden with $61 million and the United Kingdom with $60 million, while the United States contribution last year was $364 million. It is a huge contributor to UNRWA and, as well as the international community rightly challenging the importance of the humanitarian assistance from the United States, we should recognise the significant contribution that the United States makes to UNRWA’s important work.

My Lords, at his next meeting with the American Secretary of State, will the Foreign Secretary encourage him not to build the American embassy in Jerusalem but rather to renew the funding to the agency referred to in this Question?

The Prime Minister has already made her position very clear. On 6 December she said:

“Our position on the status of Jerusalem is clear and long-standing: it should be determined in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Jerusalem should ultimately be the shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian states. In line with relevant Security Council Resolutions”.

That is why we took almost unprecedented action at the UN Security Council in supporting the Motion, and at the UN General Assembly. We regard the idea as unhelpful to the peace process.

It is very clear that the reaction of the US authorities is obviously in relation to the UN General Assembly resolution; that was made clear in one tweet that was issued. If the State Department is saying that UNRWA requires reform, would not it be a good idea to engage positively with the State Department and see what kinds of reforms were necessary to ensure continued support for the Palestinian people?

UNRWA is providing essential healthcare to 3 million people and education to half a million children. We recognise that UNRWA could do some things better; UNRWA recognises that it could do some things better. We took up a mechanism last year whereby we introduced a performance review element into our funding of £50 million. That may be a way forward for others to act—but it is for the United States and other donors to step up and act as they choose.

Does the Minister agree that it is likely to be preferable for Palestinian children in Gaza to be taught in UNRWA schools rather than Hamas-led ones? In the light of that, will the Government put pressure on the United States to encourage it to restore full funding for the UNRWA schools, which I hope the Minister has seen in operation, as I have?

We have high regard for the work of UNRWA in Gaza; we have a no-contact policy with Hamas. We are supporting the Palestinian Authority as it seeks to re-engage and take responsibility in Gaza. We also work through UNICEF on the ground, providing water and sanitation. I support the noble Baroness’s views on UNRWA schools very much. They have been visited and audited by a number of Members of this House and found to be of a very high standard. We want to encourage that.

My Lords, last year President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority pledged that he would not stop paying salaries to imprisoned terrorists and their families, even if it cost him his presidency. Does the Minister agree that there cannot be peace until the Palestinian Authority truly renounces violence and stops glorifying terrorism against Israelis?

The United Kingdom Government support the Palestinian Authority financially, on the basis that it has a policy of saying that it will recognise the State of Israel and accept its responsibility to clamp down on speech designed to incite hatred and division. That is a condition of our funding; there is no question of any funds from the United Kingdom taxpayer going to support terrorists in prison. Our funding goes via a list of teachers and health professionals, carefully vetted by the EU, to enable them to provide care for people in great need in that area.