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Saudi Arabia pledges $50 million to UN Palestinian refugee agency

UNRWA chief says agency, criticized by US for perpetuating refugee problem, is successfully tackling budget crisis following Trump cessation of funding

Employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and their families protest against job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
Employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and their families protest against job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Saudi Arabia pledged $50 million in aid on Wednesday to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants (UNRWA), which has been hit by the withdrawal of all US funding.

The announcement was made at a news conference in the Saudi capital by the director of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre, Abdullah al-Rabeea.

UNRWA commissioner general Pierre Krahenbuhl told the news conference that the agency had succeeded grappled with budgetary challenges following the decision by the administration of US President Donald Trump in August to end all funding.

The United States had been by far the biggest contributor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees and the move dealt a massive blow to its already stretched finances.

It threatened the closure of UNRWA schools both in the Palestinian territories and in the diaspora, just weeks into the new academic year, as well as clinic closures and major job cuts.

Krahenbuhl said in Jordan last week that new funding pledges from Europe and other Gulf Arab states had allowed the agency to dramatically reduce the resulting budget shortfall, to just $21 million from $446 million at the start of the year.

The Trump administration, as well as Israel, say they oppose the way the organization operates and how it calculates the number of Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA was set up in 1950 to help Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Its assistance includes schools, healthcare centers and food distribution.

More than 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation and during the Six Day War in 1967.

A Palestinian man near the UNRWA relief and social program office in Gaza City on January 8, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

They and all their descendants are deemed by the UN agency to be refugees who fall under its remit.

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.

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.

Aside from ending all US funding of UNRWA, the Trump administration has also cut $200 million in bilateral aid to the Palestinians for projects in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In his address to the General Assembly in September, Trump said the United States would only give foreign aid “to those who respect us and frankly are our friends.”

The Palestinians severed all ties with the administration after Trump’s decision last December to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and declare the city Israel’s capital in a break with a decades-old bipartisan policy.

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