UNRWA raises $110 million for Palestinians on same day as Bahrain summit

The agency services 5.4 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

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June 27, 2019 05:54
3 minute read.
A Palestinian woman stands outside a closed school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency

A Palestinian woman stands outside a closed school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), during a strike by the agency's employees union to protest against job cuts, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 2, 2018. (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)

 
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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) raised $110 million for Palestinians at a pledging conference in New York on Tuesday, on the same day that the US held an economic workshop for Palestinians in Bahrain.

The agency, which services the Palestinians, still needs another $101 million to address a deficit in its $1.2 billion budget for 2019.

Although the funds raised fell short of covering that deficit, the sum is significantly higher than the $40 million raised at last year’s pledging conference, according to UNRWA commissioner-general Pierre Krahenbuhl.

“We need more money than that, but it is an important step,” Krahenbuhl told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.

UNRWA services 5.4 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It is chronically in need of funds, but the crisis has been more acute now that the US has halted its annual $360 million contribution to the organization.

The agency was able to make up the shortfall last year, but it is still short this year. Dollar pledges, however, are only part of the funding issue for UNRWA, whose ability to meet its monthly budget is dependent on the timing of when countries make good on their pledges by actually transferring the money.

Prior to Tuesday’s pledging conference, UNRWA had received enough of the promised funds to pay its bills through May, entering into a deficit in June.

Krahenbuhl said that UNRWA was now calculating the impact of Tuesday’s pledges on its monthly budget.

“We are in a cash flow crisis now,” said Krahenbuhl. “Donors have the intention of adding money at a later stage, but right now we do not have enough money in our accounts to run all of our services.”

The program most at risk is the Gaza food assistance program to a million Palestinians, who make up approximately half of the Gaza population. Some $80 million is needed to maintain that program, which distributes food four times a year.

“This is one of the key objectives of the pleading conference – to mobilize the needed money to keep the food pipeline uninterrupted,” Krahenbuhl said. “We cannot afford – not for human dignity and not for regional stability – an interruption” in that program.

The European Union pledged $23.7 million to UNRWA, which increases its total promised contribution to $121 million. The EU is the agency’s largest contributor.

The United States has argued that UNRWA’s fiscal practices are “irredeemably flawed.” It also holds, as does Israel, that the agency’s policy of conferring refugee status on the descendants of refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel creates an ever-expanding class of refugees.

Such growth makes it difficult, if not impossible, to meet the Palestinian demand for a right of return in any way that allows for Israel to maintain its ethnic-nationalist identity as a Jewish state.

Washington has argued that Palestinians can be better served economically than by UNRWA. The US is holding conversations in Bahrain this week on an economic vision for the Palestinians, but the program it has outlined does not include any replacement for the immediate social services that UNRWA provides, including food, education and health care.

Aside from withdrawing funding, US opposition to UNRWA can do little to shut the organization down, given that its mandate to operate comes from the UN General Assembly, which is traditionally supportive of the Palestinians.

The General Assembly is set to renew the UNRWA mandate later this year.

In speaking to the donor conference on Tuesday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pledged his support for UNRWA and a two-state solution at the pre-1967 lines.

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