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For decades, a U.N. agency has helped Palestinian refugees, relying on international aid to run its programs. John yang recently sat down with one of the agency's top officials, as the Trump administration seeks to cut its funding.
But first to the Middle East.
For decades, a United Nations agency has helped Palestinian refugees with various forms of assistance, and has relied on international aid to run its programs.
John Yang recently sat down with one of the agency's top officials, as the Trump administration seeks to cut its funding.
The United States is the largest donor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Known by its initials, UNRWA, it provides education, health care and other aid to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the West Bank.
Last month, the Trump administration announced it was withholding more than half of a scheduled $125 million payment to the agency, saying it wanted unspecified reforms.
Joining us now is Scott Anderson, UNRWA's director of operations. Before joining the agency, he was an Army officer for 10 years, including a stint as a company commander in Afghanistan.
Scott Anderson, thanks for being with us.
What's going to be the effect of the — withholding this money on UNRWA's operations?
What I like to talk about is what at risk of UNRWA being underfunded.
Every day at our schools across the Middle East, we have over half-a-million children come into our doors for education. And if we were here in the U.S., that be the third largest school district, after New York and Los Angeles.
We have millions of patient visits in our health care centers. And we provide food assistance to more than a million refugees in the region. So, all that is at risk. And I think the part that's very important with our education program is that, in addition to math and science and the normal type things, we teach human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance.
And we also have a very strong gender component to try to bring gender parity and gender equity to the region.
The administration says it wants reforms. It hasn't said publicly what those reforms are. Have they told UNRWA what they want?
I don't know anybody what reforms they do want.
I have been with UNRWA since 2008 almost continuously. And what I can say is that we are constantly reforming what we do. We have reformed our education program. We have reformed our health program. We have moved from food to cash in the West Bank.
And this is just indicative of the very serious obligation we feel we have to be the best that we can be.
In January, the president said that — he said, "We pay the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars a year and get no appreciation or respect."
Is there in any sense or a suspicion that there's some sort of — this is punitive, that this is somehow a payback from the president and the administration?
I mean, I can't speak to what the motivations were.
All I can say is that, if we get no more funding from the U.S. this year, it would be a reduction of 83 percent of what they gave us in 2017. And I would just — I would like to add we're very grateful to the U.S.
They have been a strong partner from President Trump all the way back to President Truman, as we do our — administer our services to the refugees of Palestine, primarily in the West Bank, which is where I am.
Israel has had, I think fair to say, a contentious relationship with UNRWA.
They praised the president's move. They have long said that UNRWA contributes to the Palestinian militancy, that they let militants use UNRWA facilities and that the UNRWA staff is often sympathetic to the militants.
How do you respond to those?
I mean, I think I just — I mentioned that we teach human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance, which actually would be quite on the opposite end of the spectrum from militancy in any form.
And we certainly do not support in any way, shape or form any type of violence. That is completely opposed to the values of the United Nations. And I work very closely with the Israeli security forces, the Israeli defense forces, the army and so forth on a daily basis.
And there is mutual respect and appreciation for the services that we provide on the ground. And they do understand how important it is that UNRWA is there and that we contribute to stability, which I think is in the national interest both of Israel and the United States, but all the member states of the U.N.
They also complain or say that UNRWA cooperates with Hamas.
When Hamas came to power in 2008, the U.N. had a strict no contact policy. I was in Gaza in 2008, from then until 2015, and we adhered to the no contact policy.
But it did allow for existing technical relationships to continue. So, for example, if there was a mumps outbreak in a camp, you can't treat that in a vacuum. You have to work with the Ministry of Health to make sure that it's contained, so it doesn't become a public health phenomena that impacts people on a broader scale.
So, we do very strictly to the no contact policy, but there are components where you just can't function in the best interests of the larger public good if you don't have some sort of interaction.
And, finally, I want to ask you about your career path.
I think, how does a farm boy from Iowa, a career military officer end up at a U.N. relief agency in Gaza and the West Bank?
I have to say it was purely accidental. It wasn't planned.
After I left the Army, I went to Saudi Arabia. I worked for the U.S. government on a foreign military sales program. And I saw for a job in Gaza with the U.N., and I applied because I thought it looked really interesting.
And what I found, when you get to Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, it's a very compelling place to work, the history that's there, but also just the people. The Israelis and Palestinians are wonderful people. I have enjoyed very much the time that I have had there. And I have been very grateful for that opportunity.
Scott Anderson of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, thanks for joining us.
Thank you very much, John. Pleasure to be here.
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