Cash-strapped UN refugee agency to cut back operations in Gaza

United Nations special envoy Nickolay Mladenov tells Security Council that by August UNRWA will need to suspend core services

A Palestinian woman sits with a child after receiving food supplies from the United Nations' offices at the United Nations' offices in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, February 11, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)
A Palestinian woman sits with a child after receiving food supplies from the United Nations' offices at the United Nations' offices in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, February 11, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

NEW YORK — Facing a major funding shortfall, the UN Palestinian refugee agency is planning to defer payment of salaries and suspend some of its operations in Gaza, an official said Tuesday.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees was thrown into severe financial crisis after the United States cut $250 million from its budget.

UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov told a Security Council meeting that UNRWA is “weeks away from painful cuts to its emergency assistance for Gaza and elsewhere in the region.”

“In Gaza, this would include a deferral of salaries to some of its workforce in July and the start of suspending core operations in August,” he added.

The United Nations on Monday will host a pledging conference for UNRWA in New York — the second such donors’ meeting in three months.

In March, it raised $100 million for UNRWA during a conference in Rome but fell short of the $446 million needed to keep the agency afloat.

Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, poses for a photo during the INSS conference in Tel Aviv, January 30, 2018 (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

The United States is the biggest single donor to UNRWA, which provides schools and health clinics to 5.3 million refugees in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The cuts to UNRWA services in Gaza come amid warnings from the United Nations that the enclave is close to the brink of war after scores of Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire during protests near the border fence with Israel.

Since March 30, thousands of Palestinians have gathered along the Gaza security fence each week for often violent demonstrations, which have frequently included direct armed attacks on Israeli soldiers across the border.

Officials from Hamas, a terror group which seeks to destroy Israel, have said the purpose of these border riots is to breach the security fence and enter Israeli territory. IDF troops, in response, have used tear gas and live fire against the rioters. Over 120 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. Dozens of the dead were acknowledged members of terrorist groups.

Gaza’s woes have been exacerbated by an ongoing dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which has cut the salaries it pays to workers in Gaza and imposed various sanctions, including cutting off payments for electricity supplies to the enclave. Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 and attempts at reconciliation with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority have failed.

Palestinians protesters run from tear gas fired by Israeli troops on the Israel-Gaza border, Friday, June 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In January, US President Donald Trump’s administration announced that it was reducing its contribution to UNRWA, arguing that the agency was in need of reform.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley has said Washington will not restore the aid until the Palestinians agree “to come back to the negotiation table” with Israel.

Israel has often criticized UNRWA, accusing it of sheltering terrorists and allowing Palestinians to remain refugees even after settling in a new city or country for many generations, thus complicating a possible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged that funding for Palestinian refugees be maintained, but not through UNRWA. Rather, he has called for it to be transferred through the UN’s main refugee body, UNHCR.

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by, uniquely, granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year, even as other refugee populations in the world shrink with each passing generation.

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