GENEVA, Switzerland — The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees has nearly overcome a crippling funding crisis caused by US President Donald Trump cancelling the US aid contribution, agency chief Pierre Kraehenbuehl said Thursday.
The organization, known as UNRWA, had counted on a budget of $1.2 billion (1 billion euros) for 2018 but faced a gap of $446 million when the Trump administration announced it was cutting support.
UNRWA responded to its “unprecedented” financial pressures by seeking support across UN member-states and raised an additional $382 million, bringing the shortfall for the year down to just $64 million, Kraehenbuehl told reporters in Geneva.
He said he hoped the gap could still be trimmed further in the coming weeks.
“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,” said Kraehenbuehl, who took charge of UNRWA in 2014.
He credited the European Union and especially four Gulf countries with increasing support.
Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates upped their support to $50 million each to offset Trump’s cuts, the UNRWA chief said.
The agency’s 2019 budget has not been finalized, but Kraehenbuehl stressed it was important “to preserve those new levels of funding.”
The United Stated had previously been UNRWA’s largest contributor.
But 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 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.
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.