UN Palestinian aid agency plans fundraiser in response to US cuts

Sweden, Jordan and Egypt to co-host pledging conference in Rome next month in bid to keep UNRWA afloat

Palestinians collect food aid at a United Nations food distribution center in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Palestinians collect food aid at a United Nations food distribution center in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees is planning a special fundraising conference next month in Rome to make up for the millions of dollars in funding cuts by the Trump administration, the body announced Wednesday.

Chris Gunness, spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency, said Sweden, Jordan and Egypt will co-host the pledging conference in Rome on March 15.

Gunness said that “the purpose of the conference is to actively support a collective response by the international community to protect the rights and dignity of Palestine refugees.”

It’s the first-high level conference in response to US funding cuts.

The United States — UNRWA’s largest donor — committed $60 million this year, far short of the $360 million it provided last year.

The agency provides services to some 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants across the Middle East.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness at the 2014 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, Sophia University, Tokyo, June 9-10, 2014. (United Nations/John Gillespie/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 2.0)

UNRWA last month was notified that the US was withholding some $100 million and demanding a “fundamental re-examination” of the agency in addition to changes to its programs, which have been heavily criticized by Israel.

Trump in January told the World Economic Forum in Davos that the Palestinians must return to peace talks to receive US aid money.

Israel and some American politicians accuse the agency of bias, with Israeli leaders saying its existence perpetuates the conflict.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged that funding for Palestinian refugees be maintained, but not through UNRWA. Rather, he has called for it to be transferred through the UN’s main refugee body, UNHCR.

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. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year, even as other refugee populations in the world shrink with each passing generation.

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 refugees reflects that reality.

In the wake of the announced budget cuts, UNRWA officials have warned the agency was facing an “existential financial crisis,” and has stepped up fundraising efforts elsewhere to make up the shortfall.

So far, Kuwait has pledged to contribute $900,000 and about 15 donor countries, including Sweden and Japan, have decided to speed up their donations to keep UNRWA afloat.

Palestinian children hold bread patties during a protest against aid cuts, outside the United Nations’ offices in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2018. (SAID KHATIB/AFP)

UNRWA’s director for the West Bank, Scott Anderson, said earlier this month that all of the agency’s services remain up and running for the time being, but that the US decision had left many Palestinians anxious.

“People are frightened and concerned about what this means for them, their families and their future,” he said.

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