UNRWA raises $110m but still cash-strapped after US cuts
If Palestine refugees agency doesn’t meet $1.2bn target it may have to close schools and reduce food handouts.
United Nations – The UN agency for Palestinian refugees has raised $110m in funding pledges, helping to plug a budget gap that remains after the United States cut its 2019 contributions to zero.
Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said on Tuesday it still needs more cash to meet its annual budget of $1.2bn.
“Its a very good amount, but we clearly need more money. We’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination,” Krahenbuhl told reporters following the event at UN headquarters in New York.
Krahenbuhl thanked donors and urged them to come good on their pledges quickly or his agency may have to cut food handouts to one million Gaza residents this summer and might not be able to open schools at the end of August.
“We have called for early disbursements of these funds,” Krahenbuhl said.
“That will be a very important step in avoiding the summer crisis we have been referring to in relation to food assistance in Gaza, but also the prospect of opening the school year in time for half a million boys and girls.”
He said it was unclear exactly how much more needed to be raised, but that he would make fundraising visits to donor countries throughout the year and hoped to get extra pledges at the UN General Assembly in September.
UNRWA has faced a financial crisis since the US, historically the agency’s largest single donor, cut its contributions from $360m to $60m in 2018 and then down again to zero for 2019.
Announcing the cut, the Trump administration called UNRWA an “irredeemably flawed operation” that was perpetuating the region’s problems with an “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries”.
The agency assists the descendants of some 700,000 Palestinians who were forcibly displaced or fled from their homes during the 1948 Middle East war that led to Israel’s creation.
Speaking in New York, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that last year’s funding crisis had threatened services to Palestinians, including “UNRWA schools not opening, food for refugees running out, clinics closing”.
“Fortunately, that did not happen because in 2018 many of you stepped up to assert that Palestine refugees deserved the assistance, dignity and hope that UNRWA provides,” Guterres told delegates.
Announcing a $12m donation, the European Union‘s envoy to the UN, Joao Vale de Almeida, stressed UNRWA’s “extremely dire financial situation” and urged countries to “come forward with additional funding”.
‘Polarised and politicised’
The UNRWA fundraiser took place on the same day as the administration of US President Donald Trump launched its long-awaited and controversial plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians in Bahrain.
In Manama, the Gulf kingdom’s capital, the US opened the “Peace to Prosperity Workshop”, where it presented plans to raise $50bn for projects in the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.
The June 25-26 conference, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s broader blueprint to resolve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
Palestinian leaders have boycotted the conference and refused to engage with the White House since 2017, when Trump broke with international convention and recognised Jerusalem as Israel‘s capital.
Speaking to Al Jazeera before Tuesday’s event, Krahenbuhl said he did not want UNRWA’s humanitarian work to get dragged into the row surrounding the Trump administration’s bid to re-frame Middle East peace talks.
“We work in an environment that’s polarised and politicised enough on a day-to-day basis. When you operate in the parameters of the Israel-Palestine conflict, whatever you do, if you breathe or don’t breathe, what you say or don’t say, is analysed and under scrutiny,” Krahenbuhl told Al Jazeera.
“So, humanitarian organisations will try to survive and operate in those contexts by being not too close to the politics and perceptions of being aligned … we want UN member states to help us not have the political intensity reach and effect UNRWA.”
A political solution absent, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate since its establishment in 1949.
It presently provides education to 500,000 Palestinian students, healthcare at 144 centres that handle 8.5 million patient visits a year, and social services to some five million Palestinians. The agency is also a major employer in Palestinian areas.