Saudis give $50 million to cash-strapped UN agency for Palestinian refugees

UNRWA thanks Riyadh for ‘very generous and crucial’ donation as it works to overcome US aid cuts that caused its ‘worst financial crisis ever’

A Palestinian man transports bags of flour outside an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 20, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP
A Palestinian man transports bags of flour outside an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 20, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP

Saudi Arabia has completed a $50 million donation to the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, the organization’s leader said Friday, amid a funding shortfall following the US decision to cut all financial aid.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, signed an agreement to finalize the transfer of Saudi funds during a visit to the Gulf kingdom.

“We are extremely grateful for the generous support consistently provided by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in recent years. The exemplary 2018 donation of $50 million to UNRWA’s core services is a new milestone in our important cooperation,” he said in a statement.

The agency said the donation was the “fulfillment of the pledge” made by King Salman in April and brought Saudi Arabia’s total contribution for the year to $160 million.

“This very generous and crucial $50 million contribution has now been transferred to UNRWA, confirming the unprecedented mobilization of support by donors and partners worldwide this year to help UNRWA to overcome its worst financial crisis ever,” the statement said.

Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory School in Gaza City, January 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

In August, the Trump administration announced it would end all support for UNRWA, after having long been its largest donor.

Krahenbuhl said at the time the US cuts left UNRWA in the “worst crisis” it has ever faced, but the agency said last month it has nearly overcome the $446 million funding shortfall.

“I’ll be very honest in saying, I don’t think many people believed that we would be able to overcome a $446 million shortfall at the beginning of the year,” Kraehenbuehl said in November.

He credited the European Union and especially the Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates with increasing support.

Earlier this month, the UN urged donor states to give $350 million in aid for Palestinians in 2019, saying it needed more but had to be “realistic” following swathing US cuts.

The UN said the appeal, down from $539 million in 2018, was due to a lack of available donor funds across the globe.

The appeal for funds, called the Humanitarian Response Plan and done in conjunction with Palestinian authorities, received in the past $100 million in US funding.

A Palestinian student walks past United Nations Relief and Works Agency, (UNRWA) and USAID humanitarian aid on June 6, 2010, in the Shatie refugee camp, in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

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

UNRWA was set up in 1950 to help Palestinian refugees who lost their homes because of the 1948 Middle East conflict. 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.

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.

Palestinian demonstrators burn an effigy depicting US President Donald Trump during a protest against US aid cuts, outside the United Nations’ offices at the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on February 11, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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