Is this the end of UNRWA?

Analysts worry that UNRWA’s perpetual cash crunch signals the beginning of the end for the agency.

Ashraf Amra APA images

In his April 2022 message to Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, said the agency is “cash-strapped” and that it has become “almost customary” for the person in his position to “beg for help if we want the services to continue.”

Throughout the message, he emphasized the “chronic underfunding” of UNRWA only to note that the agency is exploring how to “maximize partnerships within the broader UN system.”

This cryptic statement – what does it mean, exactly, if UNRWA were to maximize partnerships within the broader UN system? – has raised concerns among Palestinians that UNRWA will be disbanded – its services dispersed among other UN agencies or nongovernmental organizations.

UNRWA was established in December 1949 to provide relief to Palestine refugees created by the Nakba, or the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland to create the state of Israel.

Today, some 5 million refugees are “eligible,” according to UNRWA, to receive its social services, education and health care. However, the agency has been forced to steadily reduce those services due to lack of funds.

Yet Lazzarini said in his April message that “such partnerships” – as in, those “within the broader UN system” – “have the potential to protect essential services and your rights from chronic underfunding.”

Without UNRWA’s services, Palestine refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza face a potential (or, in some cases, even more dire) humanitarian crisis.

In Syria, 82 percent of Palestine refugees live on less than $1.90 a day. In Lebanon, 86 percent of Palestine refugees live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza have been under siege and persistent attacks by Israel for almost two decades. UNRWA reports that 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza need food assistance.

Although Palestinian refugees’ right of return is enshrined in international law, Palestinians fear that their rights will be further diminished without a UN agency to provide basic services.

Disappearing donors

UNRWA’s mandate, which is renewed every three years by the UN General Assembly, includes a commitment to assist and protect Palestine refugees until a “just resolution” to the Palestine refugee “question” is reached.

In December 2019, the General Assembly extended UNRWA’s mandate until June 2023. The measure was passed with overwhelming support despite the lone objections of the United States and Israel.

As UNRWA prepares for a new General Assembly vote at the end of 2022 to renew its mandate, the agency faces a financial deficit of roughly $100 million.

This is not a new dilemma for UNRWA.

Donor pledges to UNRWA totaled approximately $412 million in 2022, a drastic decrease from years prior, such as in 2018, when pledges to UNRWA totaled $1.3 billion – and that was despite the Donald Trump administration’s elimination of approximately $300 million of its anticipated contributions to UNRWA that year.

While Arab states have typically provided a quarter of UNRWA’s budget, those contributions have also declined, with Arab donations falling to less than 3 percent of UNRWA’s budget in 2022.

This decline in Arab funding appears to be a consequence of several Arab states – the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan – signing the so-called Abraham Accords in 2020 and thus “establishing diplomatic relations” with Israel.

In 2018, the United Arab Emirates contributed nearly $54 million, helping to allay UNRWA’s budget deficit after Washington cut off funding. The following year, its contributions decreased to $51.8 million. However, the UAE only donated $1 million in 2020, the year the accords with Israel were signed. Last year, it did not offer any financial support.

It also reflects how, for decades, Israel and its supporters in the United States have targeted UNRWA.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously called for UNRWA to be dismantled because it “perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem.”

The Trump administration adopted similar rhetoric and sought to change the definition of a Palestinian refugee.

At the beginning of the 2021-22 academic school year, the European Parliament blocked 20 million euros in aid to UNRWA, demanding changes be made to textbooks used in UNRWA schools for assistance to resume.

Although the Joe Biden administration resumed US contributions to UNRWA, it has set conditions on the funding.

Last year, the United States signed a “framework for cooperation” with the agency that linked funding to a number of issues related to the identity and national rights of the Palestinian people.

Services will not be “outsourced”

UNRWA claims that the partnerships referenced by Lazzarini are neither new nor will they replace the agency.

In a 5 June email interview, Hoda Samra, UNRWA’s senior media and communications adviser in the Lebanon field office, said that “partnerships” were a reference to “partnerships between UNRWA and other UN agencies/funds/programmes.”

The partnerships “have been a part of operations since UNRWA was first established,” she said, adding that “UNRWA will engage with key stakeholders (UN agencies, hosts, donors) during the coming months to discuss the partnerships option, and [it] expects to reach a collective agreement on the way forward within 2022.”

Samra said: “The idea of expanding partnerships is still at an early stage, with initial consultations taking place between the UNRWA commissioner-general and his senior counterparts within the UN system.”

Yet outside observers are concerned that UNRWA’s weak financial state and lack of political support will only worsen in time.

Palestinian author and historian Salman Abu Sitta told the author by email at the beginning of June that the United States and Israel are “trying to eliminate UNRWA altogether by transferring its activities to other agencies.”

“This means that Palestinians will not have a right of return and they can only seek food and shelter elsewhere, away from their homeland,” he added.

UNRWA’s Samra dismissed the notion that the agencies’ services will be “taken over” or “outsourced.”

“Any service-delivery to Palestine refugees that falls under the UNRWA mandate is also under its responsibility,” she said.

Samra emphasized that support from UN partners will be “on behalf of UNRWA and not in replacement of it.”

Dalal Yassine is a non-resident fellow at the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @Dalal_yassine. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.