Donors to increase UNRWA support and funding despite US cuts

EU, Ireland, Jordan and Germany pledge further support after US slashed UNRWA funding by $300m.

Palestinian man sits outside an aid distribution center run by UNRWA in Khan Younis
A Palestinian man sits outside an aid distribution centre run by UNRWA in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

United States’ decision to cut funding for the UN Palestine refugee agency (UNRWA) is “an evident politicization of humanitarian aid”, according to the organisation’s commissioner-general.

UNRWA, which says it provides services to more than five million Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, currently faces a budget deficit of $270m for the remainder of the year after the US government slashed its budget by $300m.

In an open letter to the agency’s staff, Pierre Krahenbuhl dismissed claims made by US State Department that it was an “irredeemably flawed operation” and prolonged the status of refugees.

“The responsibility for the protracted nature of the Palestine refugee-hood, the growing number of refugees and the growth in needs, lies squarely with the parties and in the international community’s lack of will or utter inability to bring about a negotiated and peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine,” wrote Krahenbuhl in the letter.

“The attempt to make UNRWA somehow responsible for perpetuating the crisis is disingenuous at best. At no time over the past eight months were we notified of the specific reasons for the dramatic cut.” 

Krahenbuhl went on to say that the decision taken by the US, which has been its most generous and consistent donor since 1974, will not have any bearing on UNRWA’s responsibility towards Palestine refugees or affect the “energy and passion” it carries out.

EU pledges further support to UNRWA

UNRWA was formed in 1949 following the forced displacement of 700,000 Palestinians by Zionist paramilitaries in the run-up to the establishment of Israel.

Over the past year, more than 50 countries have contributed to the agency.

In recent years, the European Union has been the second-largest contributor. It pledged more than $142m in 2017.

In a statement published on Saturday, the EU termed the US decision “regrettable”, one that will leave a “substantial gap” in the agency’s funding.

“The EU is committed to secure the continuation and sustainability of the agency’s work which is vital for stability and security in the region,” the statement said.

“The EU and its member states, and many others in the international community, including many Arab states, have pledged their support to the continuity of the work that UNRWA is doing.”

In the run-up to the UN General Assembly session later this month, EU foreign ministers, along with their international and regional partners, will discuss how to guarantee sustainable and effective aid to Palestinians, the statement added.

Countries rally to raise funds

Following the US announcement, Germany announced it will increase funding for the UNRWA, its foreign minister said.

“The loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction,” Heiko Maas said on Saturday before adding that while Germany contributed $94m to UNRWA this year, it was prepared to increase its financial aid.

Maas also urged the EU and member states to work towards “a sustainable finance basis for the organization”.

His statement was echoed by Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney, who called the US decision “heartless and dangerous”.

“Ireland is a long-standing supporter of UNRWA,” said Coveney. “We will continue that assistance and discuss with our EU and other partners what more can be done to support its work.” 

On the same day, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said his country will rally donor support to ease UNRWA’s financial crisis.

“Disruption of UNRWA services will have extremely dangerous humanitarian, political and security implications for refugees and for the whole region,” Safadi told the Reuters news agency.

Jordan hosts more than two million registered Palestinian refugees. Safadi warned that shutting down UNRWA would create “fertile grounds for further tensions”.

‘Most vulnerable targeted’

Meanwhile, Israeli media reported on Sunday that funding by the Arab Gulf states to the refugee agency would be condition-based on a revised definition and number of Palestinian refugees.

According to Israeli Channel 2, the US will allow the Gulf states to fund UNRWA this year to ensure continuation of the organisation’s immediate activities.

Funding for next year, however, will be subject to agreeing with the US demand to count only 500,000 refugees out of the five million, the report said.

In March, Qatar announced to pledge $50m, its largest sum to UNRWA to date, saying that the importance of the agency’s sustainable funding, which provides food provisions, schooling, healthcare, and relief and social services, was crucial to the improvement of the lives of Palestinian refugees.

Hanan Ashrawi, an executive committee member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, denounced the US decision to end all funding to the agency as “a cruel and irresponsible move targeting the most vulnerable segment of Palestinian society”.

“With such a decision, the US is doing Israel’s bidding and destroying the very foundations of peace and stability by taking all permanent status issues ‘off the table’, including the right of return for refugees and occupied Jerusalem,” she said. 

Source: Al Jazeera