UN agency for Palestinians warns of deep cuts if funding shortfall not fixed

Gap of $217 million will affect employment programs, housing assistance, and mental health support, according to UNRWA letter

Illustrative: A Palestinian woman outside the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City, August 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra/File)
Illustrative: A Palestinian woman outside the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City, August 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra/File)

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants has warned that cuts to key programs in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are planned over the coming weeks, if a US funding freeze cannot be overcome.

Figures were not yet available on the cuts being planned if the major gap in financing is not resolved, but a letter sent to agency staff over the weekend, and seen by AFP on Monday, highlights the targeted areas.

A source familiar with the plans described the areas expected to be affected in further detail, saying they included employment programs, housing assistance and mental health support, among others.

Most of the cuts were expected in the West Bank. Some programs were due to run out of funds by the end of July, according to the source.

The letter said the agency, known as UNRWA, would work to maintain vital food assistance programs, particularly for the impoverished Gaza Strip.

But the source said those too could face reductions in the coming months, if additional financing was not found.

UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl, left, speaks at an UNRWA conference in Rome, March 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

UNRWA head Pierre Krahenbuhl said in the letter to staff that he had called on donors who had already helped out with pledges to assist further so the agency could “overcome the rest of the shortfall,” currently at $217 million.

“I said to them and I say to you now with great honesty: A shortfall of $217 million is still far higher than any UNRWA has ever faced in its history,” the letter said.

“As the agency’s commissioner-general, I cannot hide the dramatic risks that we face to our services if we do not receive additional funding very rapidly.”

The agency is to decide in the first half of August whether it will open the schools it operates on time, following the summer break, Krahenbuhl said in the letter.

More than 500,000 children study at UNRWA schools and 54 percent of the agency’s budget goes to education.

UNRWA was established after the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948 when more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled.

It offers support for these refugees and their descendants in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza, providing services for more than three million people.

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy, by 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. It has pushed for the body to be dissolved and the refugees cared for by the UNHCR.

UNRWA counters that it is caring for a population that is scattered in several countries in the region, but is not served either by Israel or those countries, which refuse to grant most of them or their descendants citizenship, and that its definition of the refugees reflects that reality.

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