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U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians in another funding crisis

JERUSALEM — The 60-year-old U.N. agency that provides education and social services to 4.7 million Palestinian refugees will be asking the United States, its major benefactor — and critic — for more funding and political support next week.

U.S. backing is critical to the survival of the agency, according to Filippo Grandi, the Italian-born international civil servant who heads the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which he said was once again in the midst of a funding crisis.

"People might not think of America as a natural funder of our agency, but in fact I think it would be very worrying for those who are strong advocates of Israel to think of a context where UNRWA didn't exist. It wouldn't be good for the stability of Israel and it wouldn't be good for Israel," he said from his Jerusalem office.

UNRWA's budget is several hundred million dollars a year, of which the U.S. contributes $190 million, making it the largest single donor country. Last month, the State Department announced an initial contribution of $40 million to UNRWA to "provide critical health, education and humanitarian services to 4.7 million Palestinians across the region." Grandi said he hopes the U.S. will continue to increase its support, as it has over the past decade.

UNRWA has increasingly come under fire, however, most recently by a group of members of Congress led by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who during a visit to Israel last month said that UNRWA has "perpetuated" the plight of Palestinians by keeping them in refugee status.

During his visit to Washington, Grandi hopes to tackle politicians such as Engel head on.

"My pitch to them is that U.S. support is indispensible, and necessary," said Grandi. "Even if you made UNRWA disappear, the refugee problem would continue to exist. We are not the cause of the problem, we are the tool for the international community to deal with this problem."

Earlier this year, the Canadian government announced that it would redirect funding from the agency out of fears that Hamas had infiltrated UNRWA's work in Gaza. Canada will now send funds to strengthen the Palestinian judicial system.

Some of the refugees served by UNRWA are third- and fourth-generation descendants of Palestinians who fled Israel following its declaration of independence in 1948 and are currently living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

Grandi joined the U.N. in 1988 and previously served in a number of countries across the Middle East and Africa. Most recently he was chief of mission of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Afghanistan. This will be his first visit abroad since taking charge of UNRWA.

Pro-Israel groups have lobbied Congress for years to cut funding to UNRWA, backed by reports issued by the Israeli military that UNRWA employees Palestinian militants and allows them to use UNRWA facilities for terrorist activities.

"We have countered every accusation put forward against us, and we are always prepared to take measures whenever necessary. ... On a few occasions where we have found that employees are participating in political parties, they were fired immediately," said Grandi.

UNRWA also has a special reporting channel to the State Department that undertakes regular reviews of UNRWA's personnel and practices, he said.

"All the reviews we have gone through have given us a clean bill of health," he said. "The Israelis and their friends say we are not hard enough on Hamas. Hamas tells us we are not hard enough on everybody else. The Palestinians tell us we are not hard enough on Israel. I think when an organization gets put under pressure to be harder on every other party, then that organizations is doing its job well."

When UNRWA was founded in December 1949, it became the first and only U.N. agency to help refugees from a particular region or conflict. What was meant as a temporary relief agency has persisted for 60 years — until most recently functioning solely on a three-year mandate.

Next week, Vice President Joe Biden will arrive in Jerusalem to push a U.S. initiative for indirect peace talks. Israelis and Palestinians ended the last round in December 2008, when Israel launched a military assault in Gaza. Following a series of failed efforts, the U.S. negotiating team has advanced a proposal for indirect talks, with the U.S. relaying messages between the two parties.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has backed the plan and told the Israeli Knesset this week that the "time was ripe for peace." Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas secured the support of the Arab League, and he was prepared to advance with the new talks in the "coming days," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

It will be the first time in 16 years that Israelis and Palestinians won't be in the same room for negotiations, and the political situation is one of many reasons that Grandi thinks UNRWA's mandate will persist for years.

"In order to make UNRWA disappear we need to have peace. And peace can only be real, solid, durable peace if the refugee issue is addressed and solved," he said.

Sheera Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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