UNRWA head urges donors to keep funding at same level as 2018
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UNRWA head urges donors to keep funding at same level as 2018

Pierre Krahenbuhl says Palestinian aid agency will hit crisis points after May if targets not met in wake of US decision to cease donations

Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory School in Gaza City, January 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory School in Gaza City, January 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees on Monday urged donors to be equally generous this year after they filled a $446 million hole in its budget last year when the Trump administration drastically cut the US contribution.

“Last year we had an extraordinary crisis and an out of the ordinary response,” Pierre Krahenbuhl said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Our humble request to all the donors is: Please keep your funding levels at the same level as 2018.”

He said he has been thanking donors for their “exceptional” contributions that enabled the UN Relief and Works Agency to fund its entire 2018 budget of $1.2 billion.

Krahenbuhl said the agency, known as UNRWA, also adopted a $1.2 billion budget for 2019, and this year it is getting nothing from the United States. Last year, the Trump administration gave $60 million, a dramatic reduction from the $360 million it provided in 2017, when the United States was the agency’s largest donor.

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)

US President Donald Trump said in January 2018 that the Palestinians must return to peace talks to receive US aid money — a comment that raised alarm from leaders of 21 international humanitarian groups, who protested that the administration’s link between aid and political objectives was “dangerous.”

Israel publicly supported the move but defense officials registered concern about its humanitarian impact in Gaza. Israel rejects UNRWA criteria, under which refugee status is extended not only to tens of thousands of Palestinians still alive who used to live in today’s Israel but also to over five million of their generations of descendants. Officials have called for the body to be shuttered and the refugees absorbed into other existing UN programs.

Krahenbuhl said the campaign that UNRWA launched immediately after the US slashed its contribution succeeded as a result of “very important donations,” starting with the European Union, which became the agency’s biggest donor. He said 40 countries and institutions increased funding to UNRWA, including Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan, Canada and Australia. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait each gave $50 million, he said.

A Palestinian man transports bags of flour outside an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 20, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP

“Countries that supported us last year I would say were extremely proud to contribute to the solution,” Krahenbuhl said.

Last year, he said, the number of multi-year funding agreements with donors rose to 19.

So UNRWA right now is in “a somewhat better position” than it was last year, with a shortfall of just over $200 million, Krahenbuhl said.

So far this year, the agency has received $245 million and is expecting $100 million more, he said, which means it should be financially OK until about May.

“But from then on we’ll start to … reach some crisis points,” Krahenbuhl said.

He said UNRWA is thinking about holding some events in the next two or three months “to collectively mobilize the donor community.” In June, he said, there will be a pledging conference at which the UN and donors will take stock of the agency’s financial situation.

A Palestinian refugee living in Syria receives medication at an UNRWA clinic. (Courtesy UNRWA/Taghrid Mohammad)

Krahenbuhl said he is committed to making up for the $60 million that UNRWA is losing from the United States this year through internal cost saving measures to reduce the agency’s expenditures.

“That’s going to hurt, but that’s where we feel our financial responsibility, so that we preserve the trust that was generated by the level of donors,” he said, noting that UNRWA last year saved $92 million.

Krahenbuhl said donors recognize the agency does important work. He pointed to the 280,000 boys and girls in UNRWA schools in Gaza and the food assistance the agency provides to 1 million people there every three months. “That’s half of Gaza’s population,” he said.

A Palestinian woman sits with a child after receiving food supplies from the United Nations’ offices at the United Nations’ offices in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, February 11, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

The UNRWA chief also said that continuing the agency’s services to Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and elsewhere in the Mideast “is in everybody’s interest” and important for stability in the region.

“If you take Gaza right now … it’s continuously at the razor’s edge,” Krahenbuhl said, stressing that any shift in humanitarian assistance or conditions that people live in “can trigger the need for justification, or the excuse … to go back to war.”

Noting his own experience in the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the terror group that controls Gaza, Krahenbuhl said, “this is absolutely devastating and needs to be avoided.”

Palestinians in the coastal enclave have recently demonstrated against the high cost of living and taxes. Hamas security forces have suppressed the protests, beating and arresting demonstrators and journalists.

Rights groups and United Nations coordinator to the Middle East peace process Nikolay Mladenov have condemned Hamas for its violent suppression of the demonstrations.

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