As US holds economic confab, UN chief seeks funds for Palestinian refugees
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As US holds economic confab, UN chief seeks funds for Palestinian refugees

Antonio Guterres says opening of academic year at UNRWA schools could be delayed if agency doesn’t collect enough money from donors

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres awaits the arrival of Netherland's foreign minister at UN headquarters, May 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres awaits the arrival of Netherland's foreign minister at UN headquarters, May 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on United Nations member states Tuesday to fund the agency that works to help Palestinian refugees as he opened a donors conference for the body, which is boycotted by the US.

The conference was being held the same day the Trump administration presented in Bahrain the economic portion of a long awaited Middle East peace plan, an event boycotted by the Palestinian Authority.

The US plan dangles the prospect of $50 billion of investment in the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab countries over 10 years.

More than a year ago the Trump administration stopped sending money to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, and called for it to be dissolved, saying it was no longer justified 70 years after the start of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the creation of Israel.

“Today, I humbly ask all donors to maintain their support for UNRWA at last year’s level,” said Guterres.

“We know what is at risk: education for a half million children; 8 million health care visits a year; emergency relief for 1.5 million. In Gaza alone, one million Palestine refugees depend on UNRWA for food,” he said.

A Palestinian rides on a pickup carrying sacks of food aid provided by UNRWA in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on June 25, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Last year, the UN agency relied on extra money from member states and internal savings to cover a $446 million budgetary hole.

This year it unveiled a budget of $1.2 billion, unchanged from 2018.

Unless enough money is pledged on Tuesday, the agency could fall back into the red by the end of the month, Guterres warned. And that could mean delaying school openings in late August or September, the agency says.

UNRWA was established after the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948 to aid the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes and their descendants. It now runs schools and provides health care for some five million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip

Critics in the US and Israel accuse the agency of perpetuating the conflict, defining refugees differently from the main UN refugee agency, and promoting a culture of welfare dependency by maintaining an ever-growing population of people regarded as refugees. Instead of working to resettle them, as happens with other refugee populations around the world, critics say UNRWA allows refugee status to be passed down indefinitely for generations, even in cases where they have gained citizenship elsewhere, such as Jordan — to serve the Palestinian political goal of return.

UNRWA argues it is simply providing services until a political solution is found. It rejects the criticism, claiming that refugees in other conflicts — who are all taken care of by the UNHCR — also maintain their status. It says it is carrying out a UN-mandated mission that reflects the will of the international community. The best way to solve the refugee problem, it says, is to find a political solution to the conflict that addresses the fate of the refugees and their descendants.

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