UNRWA appeals for funds amid ‘worst financial crisis’ in its history

UNRWA appeals for funds amid ‘worst financial crisis’ in its history

Head of UN agency for Palestinian refugees says it needs $200 million to tackle deficit following halt of American funding

Commissioner General for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) Pierre Krahenbuhl speaks during a press conference at the United Nations Information center in Cairo on September 10, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / Khaled DESOUKI)
Commissioner General for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) Pierre Krahenbuhl speaks during a press conference at the United Nations Information center in Cairo on September 10, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / Khaled DESOUKI)

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees on Monday appealed for funds to tackle an unprecedented financial crisis caused by the US scrapping contributions.

“We still need $200 million to tackle the deficit this year,” UNRWA commissioner general Pierre Krahenbuhl told a news conference in Cairo.

“While UNRWA has experienced many types of [crises] since it was created… in financial terms… this is the worst crisis ever faced,” he said.

The United States was the biggest contributor to the agency’s budget in 2017, donating 350 million dollars. The US State Department said last month it would no longer fund UNRWA because it was “irredeemably flawed.”

To help plug the shortfall, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have all said they will contribute $50 million each, Krahenbuhl said.

He added he was hopeful China, Japan, India and European countries would also contribute funds.

Krahenbuhl on Monday met Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit. Arab countries “will not permit the dismantling of UNRWA,” a statement by the League said.

On Tuesday, Arab League states will meet in Cairo for a summit — attended by Krahenbuhl — devoted largely to UNRWA.

Arab League member Jordan said in late August that it was organizing a conference in aid of the Palestinian refugee agency for September 27 in New York.

UNRWA has provided essential aid to millions of Palestinians since it was established nearly 70 years ago, just after the 1948 Israel-Arab war, known in Israel as the War of Independence, in 1948.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul Gheit (R) receives Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), at the Arab League’s headquarters in Cairo on September 10, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED)

The termination of funding by the US was welcomed by Israel but described as “cruel and irresponsible” by Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee.

Israeli security officials have urged the government to find an alternative source of aid funding for the Palestinians in Gaza.

Though hailed by Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the cuts are said to be opposed by defense officials, who fear they could fuel Palestinian unrest and in turn jeopardize Israel’s security.

In recent days, Israeli security officials have told the political leadership that they fear the withdrawal of that aid — as well as US efforts to limit other nations’ contributions to the UN agency — could lead to a humanitarian collapse in Gaza, and eventually to war as the territory’s Hamas rulers look to push blame for its beleaguered condition onto external enemies, the Haaretz daily reported Friday.

Hamas-ruled Gaza is under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that the two countries say is meant to prevent Hamas, an Islamist terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, from expanding its military capabilities and threatening its neighbors. But Israeli officials have sought over the years to ensure that the blockade contains Hamas without causing a humanitarian collapse that could trigger bloodshed.

Senior Israeli officials, including Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and the top IDF liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, are expected to attend the UNRWA donor nation conference in late September in New York. According to Haaretz, they plan to urge the establishment of a parallel channel for foreign aid to Gaza that will allow continued funding of food aid, operation of UNRWA schools in the enclave and the payment of salaries to the organization’s estimated 30,000 employees while still sidelining the organization.

Security officials say that UNRWA’s funding for its main Gaza programs, including food deliveries and schools, is assured through the end of 2018, but that a broad collapse could ensue if funding isn’t found for those activities for 2019.

In its announcement of the cuts to UNRWA last month, the US State Department castigated the agency for what it called “failed practices,” and indicated that it rejected the criteria by which UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees, whereby the UN agency confers refugee status not only on original refugees but on their millions of descendants.

Palestinian students stand outside a classroom as they wait to attend a ceremony to mark the return to school of a new year at one of the UNRWA schools, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 3, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)

The State Department said the US, the largest funder of UNRWA, would “no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”

“The fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years – tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries – is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years,” the statement said, a reference to the fact that the agency grants refugee status to all the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees, something not granted by the UN to refugees from other conflicts and locations.

However, the statement said, the US would look for other ways to aid the Palestinians.

In a phone call Thursday with Jewish leaders ahead of Rosh Hashanah, US President Donald Trump seemed to up the ante, saying he would only resume aid to the Palestinians if they agree to a deal with Israel.

“I stopped massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians and the Palestinian leaders. We were — the United States was paying them tremendous amounts of money,” he said during the call. “And I’d say, you’ll get money, but we’re not paying you until we make a deal. If we don’t make a deal, we’re not paying. And that’s going to have a little impact.

US President Donald Trump responds to a reporters question during an event with sheriffs in the East Room of the White House in Washington, September 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“I don’t think it’s disrespectful at all” for US aid to be utilized as a bargaining chip, the president added. Rather, “I think it’s disrespectful when people don’t come to the table.”

The PA has boycotted the Trump administration and rebuffed its peace efforts since the US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December of last year. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem — which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed — as the capital of their future state.

On Friday, the State Department announced yet another cut, saying it will halt $25 million in aid to East Jerusalem hospitals, leading to warnings of the “collapse” of medical centers that provide crucial care to Palestinians.

The fresh cuts mark the third week in a row the US has slashed financial support for the Palestinians.

Israel has long viewed UNRWA as a bitter but necessary pill, a vital source of international aid for the Palestinians that contributes to stability, but at the same time an agency that reflects and bolsters one of the root causes of the conflict with the Palestinians. While backing UNRWA’s humanitarian contribution, Israel has said its definition of refugees has served as de facto international recognition, at least in Palestinian eyes, for the aspiration to reverse the results of that war — namely, Israel’s founding.

UNRWA recognizes over 5 million Palestinians as refugees, even though there are only several tens of thousands of original Palestinian refugees still alive. Palestinian leaders demand a “right of return” to today’s Israel for all these millions — a demand Israel sees as a bid to destroy Israel as a majority-Jewish state. Because UNRWA, uniquely, confers refugee status on descendants of the original refugees, Israel charges UNRWA with perpetuating that demand for a “return” of millions. Under the UN’s global criteria, it is estimated that there would be only some half a million recognized Palestinian refugees.

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