The UN agency for Palestinian refugees is fuelling unrealistic hopes of return after 70 years and is therefore helping keep the Middle East conflict alive, Switzerland’s foreign minister said Thursday.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established after the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948, when around 700,000 Arabs fled voluntarily, or because of orders or requests by their leaders, or were expelled.
Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis pointed out that the number of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Judea-Samaria and Gaza has swelled to more than five million.
“It is unrealistic that this dream (of return) will be fulfilled for all,” he said in an interview given to several German-language papers owned by the Swiss NZZ group.
“But UNRWA maintains this hope. For me, the question is whether UNRWA is part of the solution or part of the problem,” he said, concluding that “it is both”.
The UN agency, he said, “worked as a solution for a long time, but today it has become part of the problem.”
“It provides ammunition to continue the conflict. For as long as Palestinians live in refugee camps, they will want to return to their homeland,” he said.
“By supporting UNRWA, we are keeping the conflict alive.”
UNRWA is meanwhile struggling to cover a massive budget shortfall, after major donor Washington slashed its 2018 funding.
The administration of US President Donald Trump has opted to cut the $360 million offered in 2017 to a commitment of just $60 million this year, leaving UNRWA scrambling to raise nearly half a billion dollars to guarantee services until the end of the year.
Switzerland is among a group of countries who together pledged about $100 million in March to help fill the shortfall.
Cassis said his country would continue funding UNRWA, but he also called for a heavier focus on integrating the so-called Palestinian refugees into their host communities.
Switzerland’s foreign minister said that support for the UN Palestinian refugee agency helped fuel the ongoing Mideast conflict.