UNRWA in urgent search for cash at global gathering

Global powers meet in Rome to find solutions to UNRWA's funding crisis.

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AFP, Arutz Sheva Staff,

UNRWA HQ in Gaza
UNRWA HQ in Gaza
Flash 90

Global powers will gather in Rome on Thursday to discuss the future of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which faces an unprecedented crisis after the US froze tens of millions of dollars in funding.

UNRWA only has enough funds to keep schools and medical services open until May, its commissioner general Pierre Krahenbuhl told AFP.

US President Donald Trump's administration has so far committed only $60 million to the agency this year, down from $360 million in 2017.

He has frozen two planned payments worth more than $100 million -- one for UNRWA's central budget and one for food aid.

Nearly 30 percent of its funding coming from the United States.

Trump is pressuring the PA to end their boycott of his administration sparked by his December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

A major funding drive launched by UNRWA after the US freeze has raised little new money and diplomats are not optimistic about getting major pledges in the Italian capital.

UN officials want European countries to step in to fill part of the gap but are especially looking at Gulf Arab countries.

UNRWA employs more than 20,000 people across the Middle East, the vast majority of them PA or Gazan Arabs.

UNRWA was established after the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948 when around 700,000 Jordanian citizens fled the area, encouraged by their leaders' promise that the Jews would soon be defeated and they would be able to return home.

Self-described 'Palestinian refugees' numbered 750,000 in the 1950s, but now - thanks to the unique and unprecedented expansion of the word "refugees" to include descendants and those who returned home - the number is claimed to be 5.3 million.

In truth the number of Palestinian Arabs who fled in 1948 is estimated to be a mere 20,000.

In January, Trump tweeted "we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect," saying they walked away from peace negotiations.

Two weeks later his administration confirmed it would hold back tens of millions in aid to UNRWA, saying it wanted the rest of the world to pay more.

Krahenbuhl labelled it the agency's worst-ever financial crisis and launched a major funding drive, turning the front page of its website into a call for donations.

Senior officials travelled around the world to push for funds, with UNRWA aiming to find nearly half a billion dollars in new money.

But since the launch of the "Dignity is Priceless" campaign, the only new funding was a $900,000 grant from Kuwait, though European countries have brought forward donations planned for the summer.

Private donations ran only into the "hundreds of thousands," Krahenbuhl said, calling it "not groundbreaking." UNRWA did not respond to multiple requests for a more specific figure.

The UN Central Emergency Response Fund released $30 million for UNRWA on Tuesday to keep the agency's food aid programme afloat.

Nicola Jones, of the Overseas Development Institute think tank, said she expected UNRWA leaders to be "really concerned" by the slow pace of new funds.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will attend the meeting in Rome, his office confirmed on Tuesday, while Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield is expected to represent the United States.

"When any agency depends on a single donor it is a vulnerability," said Sweden's ambassador to the United Nations, Olof Skoog. "Sharing the responsibility more equally is therefore reasonable, but we expect the United States to stay committed."

Hugh Lovatt, Israel/Palestine analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations think tank, said European countries were wary of being seen to bridge the funding gap for fear of vindicating Trump's attempts to cut international aid funding.

Trump is due to announce his proposal for new Israel-Palestinian peace talks and Lovatt said all countries were waiting to see what vision it proposes for UNRWA.

He expected Europeans in Rome to make a "concerted effort to corner the Americans and convince them to reconsider."