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UNRWA chief warns Palestinian refugee agency facing a funding crisis

Philippe Lazzarini says UN organization won’t be able to pay 28,000 employees on time this month, warns of potential cuts to vital services

A bag of foodstuffs provided by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) lies in a cart as Palestinians collect food aid following a cease-fire reached after an 11-day military conflict between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, on May 22, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
A bag of foodstuffs provided by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) lies in a cart as Palestinians collect food aid following a cease-fire reached after an 11-day military conflict between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, on May 22, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

AMMAN, Jordan — The head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees said Tuesday it was unable to pay its 28,000 employees on time this month because of a major funding crisis, warning of potential cuts in vital services to millions of people amid a global pandemic.

UNRWA runs schools, clinics and food distribution programs for millions of registered Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, mainly the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding the Jewish state’s creation.

The 5.7 million refugees mostly live in camps that have been transformed into built-up but often impoverished residential areas in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini told reporters in Jordan that the resumption of United States support for the agency this year — which had been halted by the Trump administration — was offset by a reduction in funding by other donors.

The agency also went through a management crisis in 2019, when its previous head resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct, nepotism and other abuses of authority at the agency.

Staff went on strike Monday after being informed last week that salaries would be delayed, but halted the action following mediation, Lazzarini said.

“If UNRWA health services are compromised in the middle of a global pandemic, COVID-19 vaccination rollout will come to an end. Maternal and child care will stop, half a million girls and boys not knowing if they can continue learning, and over two million of the poorest Palestinian refugees will not get cash and food assistance,” he said.

“The humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees keep increasing while funding to the agency has stagnated since 2013.”

Philippe Lazzarini, center, Commissioner-General of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), talks during press conference af at the Balakhiya area in Shati refugee camp, Gaza Strip, on October 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Lazzarini said the agency raised enough donations at a recent conference in Brussels to cover up to 48 percent of its budget in 2022 and 2023. It also generated $60 million toward a $100 million shortfall until the end of the year to keep services running.

“I’m still not yet in a position to say when the November salaries will be paid,” he said.

Critics of UNRWA, including Israel, accuse it of perpetuating the 73-year refugee crisis since it confers refugee status upon millions of descendants of those originally displaced around the time of Israel’s War of Independence, rather than limiting refugee status only to the original refugees as is the norm with most refugee populations worldwide.

The Palestinians say the refugees and their descendants have a “right of return” to their homes in what is now Israel, a position supported by host countries. Israel rejects that, noting that if such a right were fully implemented it would leave the country with a Palestinian majority. They also say host nations should shoulder the burden of absorbing them.

UNRWA recently announced an investigation into allegations of antisemitism and anti-Israel bias made against ten of its staffers throughout the Middle East.

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