The United Nations received pledges Thursday of nearly $100 million in new funding for the U.N. relief agency for Palestinians after the U.S. slashed its aid, but it is still facing a nearly $350 million shortfall this year.
A dozen countries announced new funding during an emergency donor conference called as the U.N. Relief and Works Agency experiences the worst funding crisis in its 68-year history. Stepping up were Turkey, Qatar, Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Mexico, Slovakia, India and France, U.N. officials said.
After blackmailing Palestinians with financial aid threat, the Trump administration has frozen funding for Palestinian refugees who are in dire need of basic humanitarian services. The U.S. has so far committed only $60 million to the agency this year, down from $360 million in 2017. Trump has frozen two planned payments worth more than $100 million, one for UNRWA's central budget and one for food aid. The funding cuts were announced in January, one month after Trump sparked outcry across the Middle East by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital.Going into the meeting, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl had warned his organization would run out of funds in May. The new pledges gave the agency a bit more breathing room. "It will last us a couple of months more into the middle or beginning of the summer," he said. "We need to be optimistic."U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said "an important first step was reached" with the new pledges. But he said "a long way is in front of us" to fully fund the agency, which went into the conference facing a $446 million gap in financing this year after the U.S., which has provided a third of the agency's budget, announced it was withholding aid.
"If UNRWA would not exist, if these services were not provided, the security of region would be severely undermined," Guterres told reporters, according to AP. "Now it is very clear, it is absolutely essential, that the extraordinary unanimity in political support to UNRWA and its activities translates itself into cash."
The UNRWA was formed in 1949 and supports some 5 million Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, many of whose families fled during the conflict that followed Israel's declaration of independence in 1948. It offers vital support for these refugees and their descendants in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza, providing services for more than three million people. This includes education for around half a million students, with nearly 30 percent of its funding coming from the United States.
Palestinians say funding cuts would especially impact Gaza, an impoverished, Hamas-ruled enclave blockaded by Israel and Egypt where half the 2 million population rely on humanitarian aid and where the jobless rate is 46 percent. In Gaza's Shati refugee camp, Hatem Abu Sultan has depended on U.N. aid to support his seven-member family but recently grew terrified that food packages, free education and medical treatment might soon dry up.
"Our lives depend on UNRWA, after God of course," the unemployed former tailor, whose parents fled the founding of Israel in 1948, told Reuters. "So if UNRWA closes its doors or services are cut, our lives will end." In the Baqaa refugee camp in Jordan some Palestinians said public services had already been affected by the funding cuts, with UNRWA laying off garbage collectors and teachers on strike.