The head of the UN agency providing aid to Palestinian refugees warned that schools and health centers may be forced to close within weeks if funding to make up for a $185 million shortfall is not found.
The UN Relief and Works Agency has raised alarms several times over the last several months that it will have to cut back services after the US cut aid to the agency.
UNRWA head Pierre Krahenbuhl said the agency had enough money in the bank to make it to mid-October.
“But it’s clear that we still need approximately $185 million to be able to ensure that all of our services, education system, health care, relief and social services and our emergency work in Syria and Gaza in particular can continue until the end of the year,” he said, according to Reuters.
On Monday, 13,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza held a one-day strike to protest pay cuts and dismissals caused by a massive financing shortfall as a result of US funding cuts.
Schools, clinics, and food distributions were halted and workers threatened a “harsher” surge in protests if the agency didn’t rescind cuts by Thursday.
The United States, the largest single donor to UNRWA, ended its $350 million contribution this year, resulting in a $217 million budget shortfall.
The deficit has caused 113 emergency program jobs to be scrapped and 584 staff positions were converted to part-time.
The agency supports some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and provides schooling for 526,000 children in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
The US called UNRWA a “deeply flawed” organization in citing its reason for cutting funding, arguing that it perpetuates Palestinian suffering by recognizing as refugees the descendants of Palestinians who fled their homes during Israel’s War of Independence from 1947 to 1949.
Krahenbuhl, in New York for the UN General Assembly this week, pushed back against the accusation, saying that a political solution was needed to end the need for UNRWA.
“When you don’t tackle the underlying causes of conflict, that’s when you get 70 years of UNRWA, it’s not UNRWA that perpetuates itself, it’s because the refugee community is still there waiting for a political solution to address its situation,” he said, according to the Reuters report.
Israel also 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.
However sources in the Israeli defense establishment fear that Washington’s apparent efforts to weaken UNRWA may strengthen the Hamas terror group in Gaza and endanger Israel’s security.
They say that serious cuts to UNRWA’s budget would create a vacuum in the provision of basic services in the Strip, where the majority of residents are dependent on the organization. This would be particularly felt in food shortages and a breakdown of education, which Hamas could use to strengthen its grip on the coastal enclave.
The international community has held several fund-raising drives hoping to make up the deficit. Support for the body is expected to be the subject of a ministerial-level meeting at the UN General Assembly this week.
Agencies contributed to this report.