Donors pledge $130 million to UNRWA but budget shortfall remains
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Donors pledge $130 million to UNRWA but budget shortfall remains

Head of UN Palestinian refugee agency says money is not enough to keep operations running until end of year

A Palestinian worker checks a truck carrying United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) aid supplies that arrived through the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel to the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah on May 12, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)
A Palestinian worker checks a truck carrying United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) aid supplies that arrived through the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel to the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah on May 12, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

International donors pledged over $130 million Tuesday to the United Nations agency helping Palestinian refugees, an amount the organization’s head says is encouraging but not enough to keep operations running through the end of the year.

The UN Relief and Works Agency has faced a financial crisis since the United States pulled all funding in 2018, leaving the organization with a massive budgetary shortfall.

The agency says the services it provides would otherwise not be available to Palestinians.

Agency Director-General Philippe Lazzarini told reporters following a virtual fundraising conference that despite the “very strong expression of support” by international donors “we are still in the dark and we do not know if our operations will run until the end of the year.”

He said the donations covered only a fraction of the roughly $400 million budget gap the agency is facing.

Palestinian health workers wearing protective face masks are pictured in the courtyard of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) school at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on March 18, 2020, as preparations are underway to receive, examine and isolate victims of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

US President Donald Trump decided in 2018 to suspend, then yank entirely his country’s contribution to the agency’s budget, robbing it of its top donor and forcing other donors to plug an approximately $211 million hole in the agency’s $1.2 billion budget.

Trump’s administration, along with Israel, accuses UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jerusalem criticizes the agency’s practice of extending refugee status to millions of descendants, rather than only to the original refugees as is the norm with most refugee populations worldwide.

UNRWA was established to aid the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The agency provides food, education, health care and other services for Palestinian refugees and their descendants — now numbering some 5 million — in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Lazzarini said there was no intention at this time to cut any of UNRWA’s core services, but “in reality, there is nothing left to cut without impacting the scope and the quality of the services.”

Newly appointed UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini (YouTube screenshot)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it was imperative that the international community “continue in the effort to make UNRWA funding sustainable, predictable and sufficient.”

Last year a UN probe cleared the organization of allegations of mismanaging funds. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the reports on alleged mismanagement at UNRWA lent credence to its criticism of the agency and called for a full release of the probe’s findings.

The organization also faced allegations of “serious ethical abuses” by the management, including its then chief, Pierre Krahenbuhl, a Swiss citizen who later resigned.

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