Tough Sell For U.N. Palestinian Agency

Misconceptions Dog UNRWA in U.S., Especially Among Jews

Grandi Vision: Filippo Grandi, the head of UNRWA, inspects relief operation in Gaza.
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Grandi Vision: Filippo Grandi, the head of UNRWA, inspects relief operation in Gaza.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 02, 2012.
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Twice a year Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, comes to Washington to make the case for continuing funding for his organization, and the job only gets tougher.

The U.N. agency, which is the primary provider of education, healthcare and housing for Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East, was never an easy sell on Capitol Hill and UNRWA has been working hard to convince lawmakers and administration officials that the cause is worthy.

“I often feel that there is more understanding for what we do in Israel than in other parts of the world including here in the United States,” he said in a February 29 interview with the Forward.

He added that he has particular difficulty making his case to American Jews. “Not in every part of the Jewish community but in some parts of the Jewish community,” he said.

Grandi, an Italian national who was appointed commissioner-general two years ago, believes that most criticism hurled at UNRWA in America stems from a lack of understanding. For many in the U.S. Congress, the agency is seen as perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, not working to solve it.

“I think it is important for all members of Congress to remember that UNRWA fulfils a vital humanitarian mission for a population that is in a suspended status because of politics and it is in the political domain that the issue of refugees has to be resolved,” Grandi said in between meetings on Capitol Hill. “UNRWA is not responsible for that.”

Established in 1949 to help deal with the problem of Palestinian refugees spawned by Israel’s 1948 independence war, UNRWA has since grown substantially and now serves nearly 5 million people in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. With 31,000 employees, UNRWA has more staff than any other U.N. agency. The United States is UNRWA’s biggest single donor, responsible for a quarter of the agency’s $1 billion annual budget.

But while the State Department has expressed its willingness to continue funding the organization, House Republicans have been leading a call to limit the funds. Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation last year calling for imposing tight conditions on providing U.S. funds for UNRWA as part of a broader move to reform the United Nations and its agencies.


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