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Palestinian fears ‘Arabisation’ of UNRWA funding

Palestinians gather at the UNRWA building during a demonstration on September 17, 2019 in Gaza City, Gaza. ( Mustafa Hassona - Anadolu Agency )
Palestinians gather at the UNRWA building on 17 September 2019 in Gaza City, Gaza [Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency]

A number of Palestinian warnings have recently been issued against the “Arabisation of UNRWA”; a process which is coming about through the increasing Arab-funded of the body in light of the decline in international funding. This is a result of American and Israeli pressures and the increased American drive to end UNRWA’s mandate.

Palestinians are exhausting their efforts and contacts to obtain the international community’s support to renew UNRWA’s mandate for another three years. They have received successive warning of the gradual decline in financial aid to UNRWA.

Palestinians fear what can be described as the gradual “Arabisation” of UNRWA; making it Arab-funded. The Palestinian reading indicates that US funding cuts may prompt some Arab countries to provide alternative funding. Although Arab funding is important, UNRWA is the responsibility of the international community as a whole and not just Arab nations. International funding must continue, as this reflects international responsibility for the 1948 refugee tragedy, as a result of the international community’s failure to protect Palestinians and to implement the relevant UN resolutions, in particular resolution 194.

Palestinians are also concerned that the US is pushing for UNRWA’s mandate to be renewed annually rather than every three years as us currently the case. Voting on the agency’s mandate begins on the first od December at the UN General Assembly.

In order to address these concerns, Palestinians are demanding UNRWA have a permanent budget like similar international organisations including UNESCO and FAO.

READ: UNRWA calls for urgent political, financial support from Arab states

In 2019, UNRWA’s budget was approximately $749 million, in 2015 its budget was $744 million, in 2014 it reached $732 million, and in 2010 it amounted to $863 million.

UNRWA has been facing financial challenges since 2018, when the US administration decided to reduce its assistance from $360 million to only $60 million. The United States is UNRWA’s largest donor, and annually provides 40 per cent of its total budget, worth $360 million, focused on health care, education and social services for Palestine refugees in UNRWA’s five areas of operation: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

US decision to cut UNRWA funding - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

US decision to cut UNRWA funding – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

In addition to the United States, UNRWA’s donors include the EU which sends $143 million a year and 40 other countries and institutions. However, the international organisation is facing a large deficit of $446 million, an existential deficit. Any organisation that loses 40 per cent of its budget could collapse, but it has managed to keep going.

Switzerland and the Netherlands recently suspended their support for the organisation after the publication of reports of corruption in the UN organisation. An investigation into the claims is now underway , but if it is confirmed then cutting funding isn’t the way to deal with the problem, rather strengthening mechanisms of transparency, monitoring and direct supervision are the means to ensure this doesn’t reoccur.

READ: The latest US pretext to liquidate UNRWA

The international organisation is haemorrhaging money on international employees. In 2014 there were 174 international staff members, rising to 182 in 2015, and this year reaching 211. In the eyes of the Palestinians, this is a major exhaustion of its budget because the average income of international employees is $138,000 a year.

The international, American and European approaches of gradually cutting aid to UNRWA so that it is funded by Arab states coincides with a series of accelerated US policies and procedures to bring an end to the Palestinian issue. It is as if the America is racing against the clock.

In recent months, the Israelis have spoken of an approach, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to further reduce UNRWA’s budget. Netanyahu has formally presented the matter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The Israeli justification for this speaks of the fact that Jordan hosts the largest number of Palestinian refugees who receive their aid and assistance from UNRWA. The Jordanian government opposes stopping UNRWA’s operations in the country and the reduction of international aid to the UN organisation.

READ: UNRWA’s existence might be contested, but it is essential for Palestine refugees

Netanyahu also formed a team from several government ministries headed by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat whose primary task is to structure a clear strategy towards UNRWA and to present it to US President Donald Trump to agree on a common policy. This Israeli government team was provided with statistics from security agencies regarding the magnitude of services provided by UNRWA to Palestinian refugees in all sectors, including education, food, health care and housing.

These measures target UNRWA and attempt to transfer its funding and the overseeing of its programmes from being the responsibility of the international community responsibility to that of Arab and Muslim countries only.

In truth, the international community’s abandonment of UNRWA in terms of funding and financial assistance, and limiting the matter to Arab and Muslim countries, especially in Gulf states and Turkey, leaves Palestinian with nothing to negotiate with Tel Aviv on in the future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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