ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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UNRWA chief reissues ‘broken record’ warning of service cuts without more funding

Philippe Lazzarini says it’s ‘likely or highly likely’ that UN agency for Palestinian refugees will not be able to deliver some services or pay salaries by fall

Palestinian boys jump during a soccer training session at a school run by the agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, at Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)
Palestinian boys jump during a soccer training session at a school run by the agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, at Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said Tuesday that without a new injection of funding, it is “likely or highly likely” that the agency will not be able to deliver some services or pay salaries by the fall.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said at a press conference in Beirut that the agency responsible for services to Palestinian refugees has been facing a shortfall of $150 million to $200 million annually in recent years.

Donors at a pledging conference earlier this month provided only $107 million in new funds, significantly less than the $300 million the agency had called for to keep its programs running through the end of the year.

Those programs include health and education services and, in some cases, cash assistance to families in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Jordan.

While he acknowledged that the agency’s funding woes have become “almost a broken record,” Lazzarini warned donors not to “take for granted the ability of UNRWA to muddle through.”

In Lebanon, which has been reeling from an unprecedented economic crisis since 2019, some 93% of Palestinian refugees in the country now live in poverty. Palestinians in Lebanon are banned from owning property and from working in most white collar professions. The worsening economic situation in the country has driven many to take to the sea in often-deadly attempts to reach Europe.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Lazzarini said that when the agency recently advertised for 14 sanitation workers in Lebanon’s refugee camps, it got 37,000 applicants, including many holding university degrees.

“This shows how little avenues Palestinian refugees have here when it comes to job opportunities,” he said.

Lazzarini said the international community needs to have a “proper, honest” discussion about what the agency’s future role should be in the absence of a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would mean the end of its mandate.

“Next year we will be marking the 75th year of an agency, which was supposed to be a temporary agency,” Lazzarini said. “And at the same time, it seems we have never, ever been further away from a lasting and fair political solution.”

Palestinian refugees hold placards in Arabic that read “The right of return is fixed,” and wave Palestinian flags during a sit-in marking the World Refugee Day in front of UNRWA office in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

UNRWA was founded in the wake of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 to serve hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes, and their descendants. Today, their numbers have grown to some 5.9 million people, most in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as neighboring countries in the Middle East.

The organization has long faced chronic budget shortfalls, which worsened dramatically in 2018 when former US president Donald Trump cut support to the agency. His administration branded UNRWA “irredeemably flawed,” siding with Israeli criticisms of the agency.

Israel disputes UNRWA’s policy of extending refugee status to the descendants of those who were expelled or who fled during the 1948 War of Independence, arguing that it is an anomaly in the UN’s treatment of refugees in general and that the agency should be closed.

It has also accused the agency of contributing to incitement against the Jewish state through its educational institutions and through support for violence by employees.

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