Another year, another donor plea from the UN agency that is responsible for some six million Palestinian refugees.
And yet another opportunity for donors to sound sympathetic while failing to match words with action.
On 2 June, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) held its annual donors conference in New York.
The conference failed to raise the funds necessary to cover UNRWA’s financial needs for the rest of the year. As of mid-May, the agency still needed $1.3 billion to ensure the continuity of its services and its future is again at risk.
Founded in 1949, UNRWA provides services to 5.9 million Palestinian refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab host countries. In addition to operating schools and medical clinics, UNRWA also provides food aid and cash assistance to more than 1.7 million people, most of whom are in the Gaza Strip.
During the conference, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the donor community to provide the necessary funding to enable UNRWA to continue carrying out its mission.
In remarks read by Chef de Cabinet Courtenay Rattray, Guterres warned that UNRWA is on the “verge of financial collapse.”
He added that some of the major donors “recently signaled to UNRWA they might reduce their contributions.”
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini criticized the “dialogue of the deaf” between host countries and donors. Lazzarini said UNRWA’s ability to “muddle through” was coming to an end and that donor countries were imposing austerity measures on the agency.
Further cuts “would mean taking the decision to ask [that] kids be dropped from high school. This is something we cannot do,” he added.
Poverty and hunger
UNRWA’s financial crisis comes at an especially difficult time for Palestinian refugees, 90 percent of whom live below the poverty line in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.
Many depend for their survival on humanitarian aid, which includes cash assistance and food provided by UNRWA. Lebanon’s economic crisis, the February earthquake in Turkey and Syria, and Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza have led to a 10 percent increase in the poverty rate.
The United Nations World Food Programme recently warned that if it did not receive the necessary funding it would be forced to “completely suspend operations” in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip by August.
Some 200,000 Palestinians will not receive aid in June due to the severe lack of funding.
However, the donations received to date will barely cover UNRWA’s financial needs until September. Unless additional funding can be secured, the coming months will be difficult for refugees.
UNRWA’s budget has been hostage to pressure from the United States and Israel. Israel has sought the agency’s elimination for decades. In 2018, meanwhile, then US President Donald Trump cut funding to UNRWA and plunged the agency into a financial crisis.
It was one of several pro-Israel steps taken by Trump to pressure the Palestinian Authority into accepting his “deal of the century.” The policy culminated in the 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.
However, UNRWA’s budget remains in deficit for the fourth consecutive year. This is because the Abraham Accords have hindered assistance to the Palestinians and support for UNRWA. Lazzarini explained in a January interview with Reuters that rapprochement with Israel should not be related to funding UNRWA. He added that the agency “should not be the proxy or byproduct of political considerations.”
The European Union, Germany and the United Kingdom, meanwhile, have all reduced their support over the past three years.
The most dramatic drop is from the UK. In 2021, the UK provided $40 million to UNRWA. So far this year, London has not even pledged any donation.
At the same time, the Arab Gulf states have continued pursuing Trump’s no-funding policies toward UNRWA.
Since 2018, funding for UNRWA from Arab countries has declined dramatically. Last year, Arab countries accounted for only four percent of the total contributions to UNRWA.
In 2018, donations from the Gulf countries comprised around $300 million or a quarter of the agency’s budget.
Last year, Saudi Arabia donated $27 million, Kuwait contributed $12 million, and Qatar provided $10.5 million to UNRWA.
These were down from 2018’s donations of $160 million, $50 million and $51.5 million respectively.
The UAE’s contributions to UNRWA have declined even more sharply. It donated roughly $54 million and $52 million in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In 2020, the year it signed the Abraham Accords, the UAE contributed just $1 million.
The Palestinian Authority objected to the Abraham Accords, causing tensions with the UAE. For its part, the UAE has attempted to use its funding of UNRWA to pressure the Palestinian Authority to accept the Abraham Accords and limit criticism of the Arab parties to the agreement.
In January, Lazzarini visited Saudi Arabia and met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Saudi Arabia has so far not restored its funding of the agency to prior levels. The next month, however, Riyadh provided Ukraine with a $410 million humanitarian aid package.
In May, Lazzarini returned to Saudi Arabia for the Arab League Summit. He urged the Gulf Arab states to restore their financial support of UNRWA. Again, the appeal did not generate the desired response.
The attempts by the UAE and other Arab Gulf States to pressure the Palestinian Authority through UNRWA is as misguided as it is cruel. It will not force the PA to take responsibility for the welfare of the refugees or make concessions over the Abraham Accords to restore UNRWA’s funding.
Under Mahmoud Abbas’ 18-year rule, the PA has also not prioritized refugees. The new policy of the Arab states in concert with Israel will only contribute to the hardship, neglect and suffering of Palestinian refugees.
In December 2022, UN member states voted to extend UNRWA’s mandate until 30 June 2026. Despite the international community’s reaffirmations of its commitment to Palestine and Palestinian refugees, however, moral support has been more substantive than financial or political assistance.
UNRWA, and the Palestinian refugees it serves, are prisoners of a humanitarian discourse of solidarity that does not translate into action.
Regardless of whether UNRWA’s funding is restored or not, the Palestinian refugee issue will not be resolved through humanitarian assistance. This is only possible if refugees’ right of return is achieved and United Nations resolutions are fully implemented.
Dalal Yassine is a Non-Resident Fellow with the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center in Washington, DC. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.