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EU largest donor to UNRWA in crisis

The reduction of US aid to UNRWA, the UN agency for support to the Palestinian refugees, has prompted the agency to launch an appeal to donors and the international community to solve its funding crisis. UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl attended yesterday a meeting in Brussels of the international donor group for Palestine. At a press conference (31 January),  he explained that the majority of Palestine refugees, especially those in the Gaza strip, rely on UNRWA to provide aid “which is literally life-saving, including food, water, shelter and medical assistance”.

“Our appeal,” he said, “enables UNRWA to continue delivering desperately needed relief to those affected by deepening emergency situations. However, the agency’s critical financial crisis following the reduction in US funds threatens our ability to deliver these vital services.”

According to UNRWA’s office in Brussels, the overall budget needs in 2018 for its core services including humanitarian aid in Syria, the West Bank and Gaza and special projects (such as new schools) amount to USD 1.9 billion. EU, together with its member states, is the largest multilateral donor, followed by the US.

The American administration decided last month to reduce its contribution to UNRWA’s budget from 360 million to 60 million dollars, allegedly because “the Palestinians are no longer willing to talk peace” (tweet by President Trump).

UNRWA (= United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugee) was established by UN in 1949 with a mandate to provide assistance and protection to the refugees and their descendants, “pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.” UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.

Krähenbühl said that the 5.2 million Palestinian refugees today lack a political horizon and feel forgotten by the world. While focusing on the humanitarian needs, he advocated a change of paradigm.

Jordan, where about half of the registered refugees are living, has granted citizen rights to them, but not for example Lebanon, where they also are partially excluded from the labor market.

Asked by The Brussels Times, Krähenbühl said that UNRWA would initiate a dialogue with the Lebanese government about the status of the refugees but added that regardless of citizenship all registered refugees are entitled to aid from UNRWA.

He admitted that it would not be easy solve the funding crisis – as contributions are voluntary decisions by sovereign countries – but was hopeful after hearing statements of support at the meeting in Brussels. He was also optimistic that Saudi Arabia, which already is a major donor, and the Gulf States would increase their contributions to UNRWA’s core activities. Some Arab States have been focusing on aid to reconstruction work.

The International donor group for Palestine, the so-called, Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), serves as the principal policy-level coordination mechanism for development assistance to the Palestinian people. The main purpose however at yesterday’s meeting was to keep the two-state solution alive, according to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

The meeting was held at ministerial level and saw Israelis and Palestinians sit at the same table with the EU, UN, US, Russia and Arab countries for the first time since the December announcement on Jerusalem by President Trump. 

EU announced a new assistance package of €42.5 million to activities in East Jerusalem and support towards institution building of a democratic and accountable Palestinian state. Israel announced a proposal for massive investments in the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip (desalination, electricity, energy), provided that the Palestinian Authority will take over control of the area.

On this Israel and EU seem to agree. “It is necessary to enable the Palestinian Authority to execute full control over Gaza, based on the Cairo agreement from 12 October 2017,” Mogherini said. “We believe it is important that the Palestinian Authority is committed to unite the West Bank and Gaza under one single and legitimate authority.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times