A U.N. agency dedicated to the welfare of Palestinian Arabs is resisting Israel’s suggestion that it hand over some of its responsibilities in Gaza to the Palestinian Authority.

The idea was raised by Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, last Sunday in his first meeting with the new American head of the U.N. Relief and Work Agency, Karen AbuZayd.After Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in August, Mr. Shalom suggested, some of the social services currently handled by Unrwa could be handed over to the Fatah party-controlled Palestinian Authority.

“As part of the new reality in Gaza,we have to strengthen the Palestinian administration,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, told The New York Sunday Currently, he said, the only two entities supplying education,health, employment,and other social services in Gaza are UNRWA and the fundamental religious organization Hamas, which Israel and America consider a terrorist group. “The Palestinian Authority could gain in prestige in Gaza if it was to undertake some of the services UNRWA currently handles,” he said.

The Palestinian Authority, however, argues that though no Israelis are left in Gaza, its status as an “occupied territory” has not changed. The United Nations agrees. “Has there been a change in the status of the refugees in Gaza? The answer is no,” UNRWA’s liaison in New York,Maher Nasser,told the Sunday UNRWA, he added, will therefore not transfer any responsibilities to the Palestinian Arabs.

Citing similar statements made by Ms. AbuZayd at a Gaza press conference this week, the head of the Palestinian U.N. observer mission, Ambassador Riyad Mansour, told the Sun, “We are satisfied by her explanation.”

America supplies 30% of Unrwa’s budget, which in 2005 was $339.3 million.The agency, which according to Ms. AbuZayd assists 4.3 million Palestinian Arabs in U.N.-run camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza, is separate from the U.N. High Commission of Refugees, which handles 20 million refugees worldwide on a budget just twice as high as UNRWA’s.

Mr. Regev stressed that Israel was only advocating changes in Gaza. Nevertheless, Mr. Shalom’s request marked a shift in policy. In the past, Israel has never questioned the viability of the agency despite a widely held feeling among Israelis that UNRWA is part of a machine that maintains the refugee status of Arabs who fled during the 1948 war, rather than solve the problem.

“This is the first time Israel has requested any change in UNRWA’s status,” a Jerusalem-based journalist, David Bedein, who has followed the U.N. agency for years, said.

This piece ran on November 9th, 2005 in the NY Sun