AFP — Global powers will gather in Rome on Thursday to discuss the future of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which faces an unprecedented crisis after the US froze tens of millions of dollars in funding.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) only has enough funds to keep schools and medical services open until May, its Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl told AFP.
US President Donald Trump’s administration has so far committed only $60 million to the agency this year, down from $360 million in 2017. He has frozen two planned payments worth more than $100 million — one for UNRWA’s central budget and one for food aid.
Trump continues to pressure Palestinian leaders to end their boycott of his administration, sparked by his December recognition of the Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
A major funding drive launched by UNRWA after the US freeze has raised little new money and diplomats are not optimistic that the Rome meeting will produce major pledges. UN officials want European countries to step in to fill part of the gap, but are focusing their fundraising efforts on Gulf Arab countries.
Fear is rife about the future of the organization, which employs more than 20,000 mainly Palestinian staff and relies on the United States for nearly 30 percent of its funding.
UNRWA was established after the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948, when around 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled.
The agency offers support for these refugees and their descendants in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, reaching more than three million people. It provides education to around half a million students.
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, even as other refugee populations in the world shrink with each passing generation.
In January, Trump tweeted “we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” accusing them of walking away from peace negotiations.
Two weeks later his administration confirmed it would hold back tens of millions in aid to UNRWA, saying it wanted the rest of the world to pay more.
Krahenbuhl labeled it the agency’s worst ever financial crisis and launched a major funding drive, turning the front page of its website into a plea for donations. Senior officials traveled around the world to push for funds, with UNRWA aiming to find nearly half a billion dollars in new money.
But since the launch of the “Dignity is Priceless” campaign, the only new funding was a $900,000 grant from Kuwait — although European countries have brought forward donations planned for the summer.
Private donations ran only into the “hundreds of thousands,” Krahenbuhl said, saying the amount was “not groundbreaking.”
The UN Central Emergency Response Fund released $30 million to UNRWA on Tuesday to keep the agency’s food aid program afloat.
Krahenbuhl played down concerns the world was not stepping up to fill the gap.
“It takes a lot of political dialogue for these things to move forward, especially in light of the size of the shortfall,” he told AFP.
“States were planning to contribute $20-25 million to UNRWA and suddenly see a shortfall that has increased by $300 million. It is quite natural you will not have one single state that will come forward and close that shortfall.”
But UNRWA employees have deep concerns about the sheer size of the gap.
Nicola Jones, of the Overseas Development Institute think tank, said she expected UNRWA heads to be “really concerned” by the slow pace of new funds.
“They really did try to have a high-profile public awareness campaign about the cost of withdrawing funding and I think it is clearly extremely disappointing that it hasn’t been fruitful,” she said.
Separately Wednesday, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories called the US cuts to UNRWA a “big problem.”
“Anything that is cut in terms of humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza creates a bigger problem for the people of Gaza. We are struggling now to address those needs,” Jamie McGoldrick said at the launch of a separate appeal for funds for Palestinians.
‘Corner the Americans’
The Rome conference, co-hosted by Sweden, Egypt and Jordan, will seek fresh momentum.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will attend, his office confirmed on Tuesday, while Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield is expected to represent the United States.
Sweden’s ambassador to the United Nations, Olof Skoog, said it was “reasonable” the world would do more for UNRWA “but we expect the United States to stay committed.”
Hugh Lovatt, an analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations think tank, said European countries were wary of being seen to bridge the funding gap for fear of vindicating Trump’s attempts to cut international aid funding.
Trump is due to announce his proposal for new Israel-Palestinian peace talks and Lovatt said observers were waiting to see its vision for UNRWA. He said he expected Europeans in Rome to make a “concerted effort to corner the Americans and convince them to reconsider,” Lovatt said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.