UNITED NATIONS, 25 June 2019 — The UN agency for Palestinian refugees raised $110 million at a pledging meet in New York on Tuesday, but warned that it still needs more cash and may have to cut food handouts to some 1 million Gaza residents over the summer.
Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), has struggled to raise its annual $1.2 billion budget after the United States cut its 2019 contributions down to zero.
“We have announcements of just over $110 million, which is very important in regards to our overall funding requirements of this year of $1.2 billion,” Krahenbuhl said after the event at UN headquarters in Manhattan.
“It’s a very good amount, but we clearly need more money. We’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination.”
Krahenbuhl said donors should transfer new funds quickly or UNRWA may have start cutting food handouts to Palestinians in Gaza this summer and might not be able to open schools for the academic year starting in August and September.
The UN agency has been struggling with a financial crisis since Washington, which has historically been UNRWA’s biggest donor, slashed its contributions from $360 million to $60 million in 2018 and down again to zero for 2019.
In a recent address to the UN Security Council, US envoy for Middle East peace Jason Greenblatt said UNRWA “has failed the Palestinian people” and that the agency’s schools and health clinics should be run instead by neighbouring countries.
Addressing delegates on Tuesday, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres thanked governments for filling last year’s funding gap and helping UNRWA keep classrooms and clinics open and for feeding needy Palestinians.
“You spoke forcefully of how supporting UNRWA meant maintaining regional stability, protecting humanitarian space and preserving global solidarity regarding one of the world’s most difficult situations,” Guterres said.
According to Krahenbuhl, some 42 countries and institutions boosted their funding to UNRWA last year to fill the gap from US funding cuts. Every pledge made in 2018 was honoured, said Krahenbuhl, a Swiss humanitarian.
Announcing a $2.2 million donation to UNRWA’s health program, Austria’s ambassador to the UN Jan Kickert outlined “grave” concerns about the agency’s funding and added: “Former donors are invited to rejoin the efforts”.
The UNRWA fundraiser was held 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 Trump administration held its so-called “Peace to Prosperity Workshop” to raise $50bn from donor states and investors for projects in Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.
The June 25-26 meeting, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s broader political road-map to resolve the decades-old dispute.
But the political details of the plan, which has been almost two years in the making, remain a secret. While Gulf Arab states have voiced support for the US, neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials were set to take part in Bahrain and European states sent mostly low-level delegations.
Palestinian leaders have boycotted the conference and refused to engage with the White House since 2017, when US President Donald Trump broke with international convention and recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Many Palestinians fear the plan will scrap the two-state solution — the long-standing international formula which envisages an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza co-existing with Israel.
Palestinians protested against the plan in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Monday, carrying placards and chanting slogans. Some of them burned portraits of President Trump that featured the slogan: “Deal of the devil”.
Speaking to Mondoweiss ahead of Tuesday’s event, Krahenbuhl said he did not want UNRWA’s aid work to get sucked into the Trump administration’s divisive effort to re-frame peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
“I don’t want to be drawn into this polarizing debate,” Krahenbuhl told Mondoweiss.
“It’s difficult enough to operate in these contexts without having to add a supra-layer of politicisation on top of our heads. That only makes our work more complicated.”
Krahenbuhl said he had kept an “open mind” about the Trump administration’s peace proposal, but stressed that only an “inclusive process” would stand a chance of lowering tensions in the tense region.
“We can have individual opinions about what type of plan would be best for the Middle East, and if anyone had an ideal plan it would have been presented and implemented by now,” Krahenbuhl told Mondoweiss.
“We have a task to deliver and we want to get that job done and that’s why we mobilize. We have schools and health centres to keep open and emergency aid to deliver.”
UNRWA was established following the 1948 Mideast war surrounding Israel’s creation to assist some 700,000 Palestinians who were forced from their homes by fighting. Without a political solution, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate.
It currently provides education to 500,000 Palestinian students, health care at 144 centers that handle 8.5 million patient visits a year, and social services to some 5 million Palestinians. The agency is also a major employer in Palestinian areas.