UNRWA in Financial Crisis From Warfare in Gaza, Syria

UN Palestinian refugee relief agency says its funds are depleted, threatening the reopening of 700 schools.

Jack Khoury
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At the UNRWA-operated Abu Haseen school in northern Gaza during the 2014 war between Hamas and its allies and Israel, July 30, 2014.
At the UNRWA-operated Abu Haseen school in northern Gaza during the 2014 war between Hamas and its allies and Israel, July 30, 2014.Credit: AFP
Jack Khoury

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN organization that provides assistance to Palestinian refugees, is reporting that it faces the worst financial crisis in its history, due in part to expenses incurred as a result of the civil war in Syria and last summer’s fighting in the Gaza Strip.

UNRWA is threatening not to reopen schools that it runs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria for the new school year later this month. It is also threatening to curtail many of the services it provides, including reconstruction operations in the Gaza Strip.

The agency, which is heavily involved in reconstruction efforts in Gaza following last summer’s war, had announced that it would be investing $750 million to build new homes in the strip and repair those damaged in the fighting. UNRWA says, however, that it has only received a budget of a third of that amount.

On the Palestinian street, there are those who accuse UNRWA and donor countries of creating the agency’s financial crisis as a means of pressuring the Palestinian Authority and several countries into providing the services that UNRWA itself offers. Such a move is seen as a broader plan to curtail UNRWA’s activities until the agency ceases to exist in the coming years. Such a development is seen as removing the Palestinian refugees and their claim of the right of return to what is now Israel from the public agenda.

UNRWA officials deny these claims and attribute the financial crisis to the large expenses the agency has incurred in Syria as a result of the civil war there and outlays resulting from last year’s fighting in Gaza.

Hundreds of people demonstrated recently outside UNRWA’s offices in Gaza and Amman in protest at the threat that UNRWA schools will not reopen for the new school year on August 25 for half a million Palestinian students. The protesters expressed concern that closure of the schools and the redundancy of 22,000 teachers would boost unemployment and inflict damage on the agency’s suppliers.

The protests are slated to widen to refugee camps beyond the Gaza Strip. A protest is planned outside UNRWA offices at the Al-Wihdat camp in Jordan, with organizers predicting that thousands will show up to demonstrate.

A Middle East UNRWA spokesman, Sami Mushasha, told Haaretz that the crises in Syria and Gaza have forced the agency to use up all its financial reserves, about $170 million, in addition to ongoing daily expenditures. The agency’s donor countries, including the United States, European nations and Japan, are contributing their share, he said, but they are ignoring the sharp rise in costs and the increased demand due to the natural population increase among the refugee population. Arab countries, he noted, contribute just 2 percent of the agency’s budget.

The situation at UNRWA is now a matter that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon must address. Ban is attempting to raise long-term funding for UNRWA as well as solving the immediate crisis in the agency prior to the opening of the new school year. One of the proposals being considered is an increase in contributions from Arab countries, from 2 percent of the budget to 8 percent. The UN secretary general recently sent a letter to the donor countries in which he warned that if the funds are not found, about 700 schools as well as seven training centers employing about 7,000 young people would be closed.

The coming weekend, when donor countries are expected to provide their responses regarding funding for the new school year, should be a decisive period, UNRWA officials say. Last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas joined the fundraising effort. In a meeting with Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, he asked them to immediately raise $100 million to help UNRWA open the school year on time. Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said this week that the PA was also in touch with other donor nations on the issue.

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