Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

UNRWA at a crossroad

The UN Refugee Agency may have to scale down its operations unless it can raise $100 million in additional funds, Ahmed Al-Sayed reports from Gaza

Al-Ahram Weekly

The accusation is now familiar. Israel, the Palestinians claim, wants to end the life of UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. In doing so, it is hoping to end the question of refugees that had brought it international opprobrium and is likely to be a thorny issue in any peace deal.

Created 65 years ago, UNRWA is at a crossroads. The organisation was set up by a decision from the UN General Assembly in 1949 and given a mandate to assist and protect nearly five million Palestinian refugees living in five areas: Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.

Since then, UNRWA has provided education and health services, social services, infrastructure, camp improvements and food to Palestinian refugees in need.

But its responsibilities have outgrown available finances, especially after Gaza’s economy was wrecked by siege and repeated Israeli wars and assaults.

So when UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl told reporters that the agency may have to scale down its activities, all hell broke loose in Gaza, where humanitarian help is a matter of life and death for tens of thousands of besieged Palestinians.

Facing a shortage of more that $100 million in its budget, UNRWA officials say that they will not be able to continue offering the same level of humanitarian aid they had maintained so far.

Abdallah Al-Afranji, who is Gaza governor and advisor to the Palestinian president for international relations, believes that UNRWA is being punished for its outspoken positions on Palestinian affairs.

Al-Afranji, a former ambassador to Germany, remembers how Robert Turner, UNRWA director of operations in the Gaza Strip, wept during a news conference while reporting the atrocities Israel committed against the Gaza population.

“Turner offered all possible help to the refugees during the Israeli onslaught, and he dispensed $200 million in assistance to the refugees,” Al-Afranji says.

Turner, a Canadian national, started working with UNRWA in May 2012. He recently said that he would leave office effective mid-July 2015.

UNRWA is having trouble raising money because donor states want to pressure the Palestinians into making political concessions, which is not UNRWA’s fault, Al-Afranji adds.

Palestinian officials said that if UNRWA scales back its operations, this would have a severe effect on health, education and other services in Gaza. Plans to appoint 500 teachers will also be put on hold.

Medical services, including physiotherapy, X-ray units, and dental clinics, will be affected.

More than 240,000 students in Gaza attend a total of 252 UNRWA-operated schools.

Khaled Al-Batch, a key figure in the Islamic Jihad, says that the cutbacks are “politically motivated”. The aim of the budget cuts is to turn the UNRWA into a political tool.

“We reject the cutbacks and call on UNRWA to resume [its humanitarian functions],” Al-Batch added.

According to UN estimates, 70 per cent of Gaza inhabitants are refugees: about 1.2 million of a total of 1.8 million people.

Arab and Muslim countries should help UNRWA out of its current crisis, Al-Batch suggests.

According to Palestinian official figures, the number of refugees was 5.9 million in late 2014. Of those, 1.2 million live in Gaza, 914,000 in the West Bank, 447,000 in Lebanon, 2.1 million in Jordan and 500,000 in Syria.

Hamas said that the cutbacks, if implemented, would be in violation of the UN mandate under which UNRWA was created.

Speaking in a news conference marking the 65th creation of UNRWA in New York in early June, Krahenbuhl said the agency will have to discontinue much of its operations by September 2015 unless it can raise the $106 million needed to maintain services at current levels.

Explaining the reasons for the financial crisis, Krahenbuhl noted that the number of Palestinians receiving food assistance in 2000 was 80,000, but rose to 860,000 because of the blockade and repeated wars. Thousands of Palestinians lost their jobs because of the collapse of the Gaza economy, the UNRWA commissioner-general said.

Israel, meanwhile, is looking for a chance to bring UNRWA’s work to a complete halt.

A report published by the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) published in Maariv newspaper a week ago claims that UNRWA is not helping the refugees but “perpetuating” their problem.

According to the report, weapons were found in UNRWA facilities during the past war, offering an excuse to terminate the agency’s activities.

In 2003, the report notes, an Israeli military court convicted UNRWA employees of throwing firebombs at an Israeli bus and of transporting explosives and gunmen in UNRWA vehicles.

UNRWA media spokesman in Gaza Adnan Abu Hasanah said that the agency doesn’t allow its facilities to be used in any military activities and is solely focused on its humanitarian mission.

During the last Israeli offensive in Gaza, in July-August 2015, dozens of schools run by the UNRWA in Gaza came under Israeli fire, leading to heavy casualties among civilians who had taken refuge there.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that Israeli attacks killed 44 and injured 227 others in UNRWA-operated schools that were being used as shelters.

A UN fact-finding committee investigating the conflict in Gaza admitted that weapons were found in three UNRWA-run schools that were abandoned at the time. (see p.13)

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