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UNRWA not helped by wealthy Arab states during major funding crisis, British documents reveal

February 19, 2024 at 10:07 am

A view of destruction at UNRWA headquarters, which provides aid to millions of Palestinians and works under the United Nations, is targeted by Israel in Gaza City, Gaza on February 11, 2024. [Karam Hassan – Anadolu Agency]

The wealthiest Arab states refused to help the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) during one of its toughest financial crises despite unprecedented warnings about the potential serious consequences of the agency’s collapse, documents kept in Britain’s National Archive have revealed. Communications between UNRWA and Western and Arab countries in the late 1970s confirm the commonly-held perception that UNRWA’s mission was intended to solve a political rather than a humanitarian problem.

When UNRWA started operations in 1950 (having been mandated by the UN the year before), it was seen as a temporary step to relieve the plight of Palestinian refugees by providing basic rations, housing and education and health services. Apart from the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, the principal concentrations of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA were (and are) in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

The agency was — and still is — almost entirely dependent on voluntary contributions by UN member states and NGOs. By the end of 1979, UNRWA faced one of its worst crises due to its financial difficulties that put its services for Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and neighbouring countries, particularly the entire school system, in jeopardy.

The continuation of the problems in southern Lebanon seriously disrupted UNRWA’s refugee work in the area, where more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees had fled their homes because of Israeli military aggression.

According to UNRWA reports, the organisation was providing essential services for around 1.8 million registered refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It forecast a large deficit of about $53m in the 1980 budget.

The then Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Olof Rydbeck, had to tour several countries, including the US, the UK and Jordan, for urgent talks with all concerned parties to mobilise financial support. He also tried hard in vain to visit Saudi Arabia.

In 1979, the contributions of Arab oil-producing countries amounted to $10.01m, just 1.2 per cent of the agency’s budget. US and Canadian donations totalled $56.3m, about 30.3 per cent of the budget. The European Economic Community (now the European Union, of which the UK was a member until 2020) together with Norway and Sweden gave $53.8m, about 33 percent.

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The British Embassy in Jordan alerted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) that the funding of UNRWA “has become an annual cliff-hanger”.

In a report sent to London in early January 1980, based on his communications with the Jordanian government and UNRWA officials on the ground, British Ambassador Alan Urwick drew his government’s attention to the following:

  • The reluctance of Arab oil producers to increase their modest contributions to the budget had understandably irritated Western donors and made the UN Secretary-General reluctant to exert his influence further in seeking contributions from them.
  • Underestimating the ill effects of the cuts that have already been imposed for the lack of funds would be wrong.
  • If there were a further serious cut in UNRWA’s services, particularly in education, the internal consequences for Jordan would be very serious.
  • The security consequences of starting to dismantle the education system could be so grave that the agency might find it impossible to carry out any part of its programmes.

While Urwick reiterated that UNRWA officials and reports didn’t exaggerate the bleak picture, he warned that the troubles in the refugee camps “could rapidly spread to the other parts of the population.” He argued that UNRWA “plays a vital role in the maintenance of stability” in Jordan, so “it is strongly in our interest that it (the agency) should continue to do so.”

In early February, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA explained to Urwick some of the difficulties he was facing in finding solutions for the financial crisis. According to Rydbeck, Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, promised him twice to intervene in Arab capitals on behalf of UNRWA to get help. However, when he tried to “pin Arafat down to fulfil his promises,” he was told that the PLO head “was too much preoccupied with the Lebanese internal situation to be able to help.”

Urwick and Rydbeck met in Amman after discussing the crisis with Crown Prince Hassan Bin Talal and Prime Minister Abdelhamid Sharaf, and his talks in the USA and Scandinavia. The meeting also came before the visit of the Commissioner-General to London.

Rydbeck told the British ambassador that Arab governments continued to take the line with him that “the refugee situation was not of their making and that they didn’t, therefore, wish to take over the main burden of UNRWA.” While Rydbeck was doing his best to persuade these governments that “this wasn’t what was being asked of them,” he merely asked them that they “should make a sufficient amount of money available on top of what being received from the agency’s traditional supporters to keep its work going.”

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In another report, the British Embassy in Vienna, which was where the UNRWA headquarters was, confirmed the refusal of Arab oil-producing states to increase their regular share by more than $2.2m in the 1980 budget.

UNRWA Deputy Commissioner-General Alan Brown informed the embassy that the stance of the wealthy Arab states “stemmed from their long-standing position that the Palestine refugees were really the responsibility of the West and their fear that if they committed themselves in the longer term they might eventually be saddled with the main burden of maintaining UNRWA.”

Despite the Arab states’ stance, Brown told the British that the long-term aim was to persuade the Arab governments to carry roughly 30 per cent of the cost of UNRWA’s operations, as the North Americans and Europeans already did, leaving the other 10 per cent to be made by other donor governments and organisations.

The documents also revealed that the Syrians took a “very negative “position on UNRWA’s financial problems. During meetings with a visiting delegation from the Council of Europe, the Syrian minister of social affairs and director-general of refugee affairs in the interior ministry argued that, “There was such a thing as a deficit and the richer Western countries, especially the USA, should pay up.”

In a report about the visit of a European delegation, including Anita Gradin, the socialist Swedish MP who was known as being pro-Israel, the British Embassy in Damascus said that, “Camp David was again the villain,” a reference to the talks between Anwar Al-Sadat, the then Egyptian president, and Israel, which Syria refused to be part of.

“There was no suggestion that Syria would contribute or help because other Arabs chose to do so,” said the report. It added that Gradin, a former ambassador and minister, explained to the British ambassador that she had told the Syrian minster that, “The Soviet Union, which after all had been among the first to vote for the creation of Israel, should contribute to UNRWA.”

The Saudis took a similar position. They turned down Rydbeck ‘s request to visit Riyadh submitted by the Jordanians on his behalf. Rydbeck hoped to convince Saudi Arabia to help UNRWA as it did — together with Kuwait and Libya — in 1979 when they made special contributions that enabled UNRWA to keep some 290 junior schools for Palestinian refugees open.

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The British ambassador to Amman reported to the FCO that Marwan AlQassem, the Jordanian minister for Foreign Affairs, informed him that the Saudi reaction to UNRWA problems had been “negative”. The Saudis “reiterated their view to the Jordanians that this was not a problem for the Arabs to solve but a UN responsibility and that it should not be used to put pressure on Jordan.”

Palestinians in Gaza see UNRWA funding cuts as 'death sentence' - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor] 

Palestinians in Gaza see UNRWA funding cuts as ‘death sentence’ – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The minister admitted that the Jordanians “found it difficult to argue with the Saudis” and believed that they “were contributing quite generously to other UN agencies even if their contribution to UNRWA was relatively small.”

Before the top UNRWA official visited London to discuss the funding issue, the Overseas Development Agency within the FCO advised that the UK should continue its support for the agency. In a report classified as “restricted”, meaning that very few officials had access to it, the ODA warned of the impact of not doing so.

“While humanitarian concern has been a factor, this high level of support has been provided chiefly because a collapse of the agency would have serious political consequences,” it stressed. The report also explained that British interests in the region would be affected. “Our relations with the Arabs generally would be damaged.” The threat to stability in both Jordan and Lebanon should UNRWA have to close down was also pointed out.

In an inter-departmental memo, the then Ministry of Overseas Development warned that if UNRWA collapsed due to funding difficulties, the Arab world “would continue to look to the international community.” In such a case, “We should be compelled to find an alternative and possibly more expensive arrangement.”

The ministry stressed that the UK had given high priority to supporting UNRWA “because its collapse would have serious political repercussions.” It warned that if the agency stopped working, “the Arabs would blame the West and our relations with them would be jeopardised,” and “there would be a risk to stability in Jordan (whose camps still hold a substantial part of the Palestinian population) and the situation in Lebanon further jeopardised.”

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By the end of 1979, the UK’s direct financial support to UNRWA since its inception amounted to more than that of any other country except the United States. According to the UNRWA’s financial statements, the British contribution was $9.3m in 1979, while the US paid $52m.

In his meeting in London with Neil Martin, the British Minister for Overseas Development, Rydbeck briefed his hosts on the result of his visits to other capitals. He confirmed that Israel was “aware of the stabilising effect of UNRWA and the consequences of closing any schools.”

When he was asked about the American stance, he said, “There was an awareness in the White House of the US political stake” and “efforts would be made to raise” the US contribution which had been held at the same level for three years. Commenting on the Egyptian position, Rydbeck said that Cairo regarded UNRWA’s work as part of the necessary peace process in the area.

The minutes of the discussions noted that the UNRWA Commissioner-General “stressed that it [the mission his agency was mandated to do] was not a refugee problem but a political one related to the [agreement] for the area”, adding that “once [this] was achieved the problem would evaporate.”

In his meeting with Douglas Hurd, the Minister of State for Europe in London, Rydbeck stressed that over the previous 30 years, his agency was “an important political element in the area.” He also warned the British that, “If anything should happen because of its recurring financial troubles this would add an element of instability.”

During the talks, Rydbeck emphasised that his main fear were the education programmes for the Palestinians that would be most impacted by the UNRWA financial crisis. “The effect if they had to dismantle the schools would be considerable,” he noted, since UNRWA “was regarded as the Palestinian Education Department.” Indeed, “No population valued education so highly since the Palestinians saw it as important for the future of their people.”

UNRWA records for 1980 show that the agency allocated $99.5m of its budget for education, $29.7m for health, and $56.9m for relief services.

Despite all the risks of UNRWA’s collapse, the British ministers informed Commissioner-General Rydbeck that they could only increase the British contribution to $10.2m, which was still short of the $11m that the agency would have liked Britain to contribute.

UNRWA had to cut expenses and some services to cope with its financial crisis in 1980. It also received some donations from NGOs.

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