“This is the worst financial crisis in UNRWA’s history,” Chris Gunness, the spokesperson for the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, told The Electronic Intifada on Wednesday.
Gunness’ dire warning came the day after the Trump administration announced a savage cut in US contributions to the organization that provides basic health, education and emergency humanitarian services to five million Palestinian refugees.
On Tuesday, the State Department announced that the US was withholding more than half of a $125 million payment that was due to UNRWA this month.
While $60 million would be paid immediately, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that the remainder was being “frozen” and “held for future consideration.”
The US has been the largest single donor to UNRWA, providing almost $370 million of the agency’s $1.2 billion budget in 2016.
The cut makes good on threats President Donald Trump and his UN ambassador Nikki Haley made in recent weeks to slash funding for Palestinians in retaliation for the Palestinian Authority’s objection to the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its rejection of American sponsorship of currently nonexistent peace negotiations.
Haley had reportedly advocated for the US funding to be cut completely, despite her previous public support for the agency’s work, including a photo-op with child refugees last June.
In a post on Twitter at the time, Haley said her visit to an UNRWA school gave her “the chance to talk with girls and women about their lives, their hopes and their dreams.”
But according to The Washington Post, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prevailed over Haley in the internal battle over the funding.
Tillerson reportedly raised the matter “personally with Trump and secured the president’s agreement to support the State Department’s position” that not all the funding should be cut.
Israel has also called for the dismantling of UNRWA, as part of its drive to eliminate support for the rights of Palestinian refugees who remain in exile due to Israel’s refusal to allow them to return home solely because they are not Jews.
Health and futures at stake
The impact is likely to be felt immediately by some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
“At stake is the access of 525,000 boys and girls in 700 UNRWA schools, and their future. At stake is the dignity and human security of millions of Palestine refugees, in need of emergency food assistance and other support in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” UNRWA commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl said following the US announcement. “At stake is the access of refugees to primary healthcare, including prenatal care and other life-saving services.”
Krähenbühl urged other donor states and individuals around the world “to rally in support” of UNRWA’s work with funding and donations to replace the American contribution.
He offered assurances to Palestinian refugees that “we are working with absolute determination to ensure that UNRWA services continue” and told students that schools would stay open “so you can receive your cherished education.”
But despite those assurances, the agency has already laid off dozens of teachers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and about 100 workers in Jordan, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Tuesday.
UNRWA employs about 30,000 people, the vast majority of them Palestinian refugees.
In face of the crisis, Krähenbühl called on the agency’s doctors, nurses, school principals, teachers, guards, sanitation laborers, social workers and support staff to “be at your duty stations to serve the community with the same dedication and commitment that you have always shown.”
Public support urged
Krähenbühl’s statement also apparently responds to US claims that the agency needs “reform.” State Department spokesperson Nauert said that the US would “take a look at UNRWA, trying to make sure that the money is best spent.”
“The US government has consistently commended our high impact, transparency and accountability,” Krähenbühl said. “This was reiterated, once again, during my latest visit to Washington in November 2017, when every senior US official expressed respect for UNRWA’s role and for the robustness of its management.”
The agency has long been the target of smear campaigns by Israel and its lobby groups who believe that its mere existence keeps alive the issue of Palestinian refugees – who they view as a “demographic threat” to Israel on the racist grounds that they are not Jewish.
In an effort to mitigate the humanitarian impact, UNRWA is turning to the public for support.
Its website features a prominent call for public donations in response to the “dramatic reduction of US funding” and urges social media users to support the agency with the hashtag #ForPalestineRefugees.