UN gets $100M in new funds for Palestinian aid after US cuts
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hails 'important first step' but stressed that 'a long way is in front of us' to fill the $350 million shortfall; Israel insists organization exacerbates issue by granting refugee status to descendents of bona fide Palestinian refugees.
UN officials said the countries providing the new financing included Qatar, Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, New Zealand, Norway, Korea, Mexico, Slovakia, India and France.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said "an important first step was reached" at an emergency donor conference in Rome with the new pledges. But he said "a long way is in front of us" to fully fund the agency, which went into the conference facing a $446 million gap in financing this year—the worst funding crisis in its 68-year history.
"If UNRWA would not exist, if these services were not provided, the security of region would be severely undermined," Guterres told reporters at the conference's conclusion. "Now it is very clear, it is absolutely essential, that the extraordinary unanimity in political support to UNRWA and its activities translates itself into cash."
The agency, the oldest and largest UN relief program in the Middle East, provides health care, education and social services to an estimated 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Israel complains that the organization grants Palestinian refugees special status by counting descendants of Palestinians who were either forced to leave or fled during the 1948 War of Independence.
By using this unique categorization which no other refugee in the world is afforded, Israel says that UNRWA is responsible for exacerbating, rather than solving, the problem.
The body's edcuational facilities have also been used in the past for Hamas terror purposes.
Last October, it was reported that UNRWA discovered a Hamas attack tunnel underneath one of its schools in Gaza.
But the matter was not a focus for Guterres and reforms that US President Donald Trump had called for were also neglected. Guterres told the conference that cutting sanitation, health care and medical services in already poverty-wracked and conflict-ridden areas "would have severe impact—a cascade of problems that could push the suffering in disastrous and unpredictable directions."
The Trump administration announced in January it was slashing $65 million this year. But the agency said the actual cut was around $300 million because the US had led the agency to believe it would provide $365 million in 2018.
The US had been UNWRA's largest donor, supplying nearly 30 percent of its budget. In announcing the cuts in January, the US State Department said it wanted reforms at the agency, which Israel has strongly criticized.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who along with his counterparts from Jordan and Sweden co-hosted the meeting, said the agency had already undertaken reform measures to streamline and rationalize its activities. But he said "there is a limit to its ability to do so" given the enormous sustained needs.
"It is vital and it is necessary to address these very basic services, but also to provide dignity for multitudes of Palestinians and to (protect) many of them from the potential threats of radicalization and terrorism," he told reporters.
The agency's chief, Pierre Kraehenbuel, said expectations in the region were high that donors would step up.
"The message to the Palestinian refugees has to be that they are not forgotten," he said.
Ynet contributed to this report.