The United Nations has asked member states to fill a critical funding gap caused by the US government’s decision to cut more than half of its funding to the UN agency that assists Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.
On Monday, a conference held by the UN to raise money for basic services including food aid, medical care and sanitation, commenced in an attempt to help more than five million refugees in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and war-torn Syria.
It is unclear how much was pledged by which countries against this year’s shortfall of $250m facing the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).
According to UN officials, the US, previously UNRWA’s top donor, provided $364m to the agency last year, but only $60m this year.
The cuts made by US President Donald Trump in January are endangering basic services, including food assistance in the besieged Gaza Strip, as well as medical clinics and education services to about half a million children, Pierre Krahenbuhl, the agency’s director, said.
“The situation of Palestinians is defined by great anxiety and uncertainty, first because Palestinian refugees do not see a solution to their plight on the horizon,” he said at a briefing before the conference, which was also attended by Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general.
When Trump’s administration announced in January that it was withholding $65 million of a planned $125 million funding installment for the relief agency, it was essentially cutting the only lifeline available to millions of registered refugees who have been relying on UNRWA’s services for more than 70 years.
In a series of tweets, Trump had said: “… We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect.
“… With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
Trump’s posts came less than a month after his controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move that prompted widespread international condemnation and led Palestinian leaders to say that they would “no longer” accept any peace plan put forward by the US.
Al Jazeera’s James Bay, reporting from the UN headquarters in New York, said the UN has for months been trying to fill UNRWA’s budget gap.
“It appears there are new funds coming from the European Union, from Mexico, from Sweden and from Belgium – and other countries like the UK, are bringing forward some of their funding,” Bays said.
“The total amounts though are nowhere near the shortfall of $250m, and the UN is still desperately looking for further funding,” he said.
In March, a summit in Rome co-organised by Jordan, Sweden, and Egypt to help fund the agency managed to raise $100m in aid pledges, but still fell $350m short.
The US government released $60m in January so UNRWA could pay teachers and health workers and keep schools and medical services open in Gaza and the West Bank, but made clear that its donations would be dependent on major reforms.
Last week, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the agency needed to “determine a way to better manage its budgeting and its finances.”
The siege on Gaza, imposed by Israel and Egypt, that has trapped more than two million Palestinians since 2006, has left residents of the enclave with limited access to water and electricity, and the cuts have proved to be more catastrophic.
In a statement, Hamas, the Palestinian political movement that governs the Gaza Strip, called on the UN to take necessary steps towards incorporating UNRWA’s aid money as part of the body’s main budget.
“The UN should take a responsible decision by approving the agency’s budget as part of its primary budget,” the Gaza-based group said on Monday.
“It is unacceptable that Palestinian refugees continue to suffer; that their lives must depend on international political calculations and racist US decisions that favor the Israeli occupation at the expense of [Palestinian refugees’] inalienable rights,” the statement read.
During the UN meeting, Krahenbuhl warned that one million people were at risk of losing access to food in the strip.
In its statement, Hamas also called on Arab states to “live up to their pledges” and pitch in to the funding of the agency.