The European Union says it’s offering an extra 40 million euros ($46 million) to the UN Palestinian refugee agency to help educate children and provide health care in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The EU move announced Friday is intended to help fill a $217 million budget short-fall left after the United States effectively ended its $350 million contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
The agency on Thursday received pledges of $118 million from donor countries to help it overcome the crisis.
Germany, Sweden, the European Union, Turkey, and Japan were among the countries that came forward with extra funds for UNRWA during a meeting held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
But the deficit has led to the elimination of 113 jobs and 584 staff positions being converted to part-time. UNWRA’s Gaza employees went on strike Monday to protest pay cuts and dismissals.
Around 80 percent of Palestinians in the impoverished Gaza Strip are eligible for UNRWA aid.
Unemployment is high in the enclave and employees say their families will be at risk if they are laid off from the agency.
The agency supports some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and provides schooling for 526,000 children in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
The “right of return” is one of the key issues of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim that the five million people the UN recognizes as refugees have the right to return to their homes in Israel proper. Israel, for its part, rejects this demand, saying that it represents a bid by the Palestinians to destroy Israel by weight of numbers.
Israel’s population is almost nine million, some three-quarters of whom are Jewish. An influx of millions of Palestinians would mean Israel would no longer be a Jewish-majority state.
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.
However, sources in the Israeli defense establishment fear that Washington’s apparent efforts to weaken UNRWA may strengthen the Hamas terror group in Gaza and endanger Israel’s security.
They say that serious cuts to UNRWA’s budget would create a vacuum in the provision of basic services in the Strip, where the majority of residents are dependent on the organization. This would be particularly felt in food shortages and a breakdown of education, which Hamas could use to strengthen its grip on the coastal enclave.
The United Nations has warned that the situation in Gaza is “catastrophic” after 11 years under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, during which Hamas and Israel have fought three wars.
Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized the territory from the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. It says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.
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