UN Agency for Palestinians Seeks Help After U.S. Slashes Funding

UN gets $100 million for Palestinians but still running about $346 million short for 2018

FILE PHOTO: Refugee school girls hold kites to fly during the "Kites of Dignity" event at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory school in Gaza City, March 12, 2018.
Adel Hana/AP

The United Nations says a donor conference has produced nearly $100 million in new pledges to fund the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees this year after the U.S. slashed its aid, prompting the greatest funding crisis in its 68-year history.

But the UN is still running about $346 million short for 2018, and officials warned that critical services could be scrapped if the money doesn't come through.

Jordan, Egypt and Sweden hosted the emergency donor conference in Rome on Thursday to try to make up for the shortfall. Jordan's foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said the conference was "a very successful beginning" but that more fundraising was necessary.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrives to attend a summit, to address Palestinian UNWRA funding crisis, at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) headquarters in Rome, March 15, 2018.
Remo Casilli / Reuters

A U.S.-induced hafunding shortfall for the UN relief agency for Palestinians risks cutting critical services that could "push the suffering in disastrous and unpredictable directions," the UN chief warned at the conference.

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.

Guterres told the conference that investment in UN programs addresses the despair and other factors "that lead to radicalization" among young Palestinians.

Cutting sanitation, health care and medical services in already poverty-wracked and conflict-ridden areas "would have severe impacts — a cascade of problems that could push the suffering in disastrous and unpredictable directions," he warned.

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 U.S. had led the agency to believe it would provide $365 million in 2018.

The U.S. had been UNWRA's largest donor, supplying nearly 30 percent of its budget. In announcing the cuts in January, the U.S. State Department said it wanted reforms at the agency, which Israel has strongly criticized.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the agency had already undertaken reform measures to streamline and rationalize its activities, but said "there is a limit to its ability to do so" given the enormous sustained needs faced by 5 million people.

"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 head, Pierre Kraehenbuel, said expectations in the region were high that donors would step up and come to the agency's rescue.

"The message to the Palestinian refugees has to be that they are not forgotten. All eyes in the refugee camps throughout the Middle East are on this conference," he said.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were forced from their homes during the war that led to Israel's establishment in 1948.

Today, there are an estimated 5 million refugees and their descendants, mostly scattered across the region.