‘Doomsday scenario’ could unfold unless Palestinian agency replaces US funding within 30 days, spokesperson says.
Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief Works and Agency, said on Saturday Friday’s move would affect “millions of people” including “some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised on this planet”.
For nearly 70 years, UNRWA has provided lifesaving assistance to more than five million Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, as well as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
But over the past year, the US government has made it increasingly clear it considers the work the organisation does, and who it considers as refugees, to be an obstacle in the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
It was later reported that the Trump administration had withheld about $305m in funding, and only delivered $60m to UNRWA.
UNRWA told Al Jazeera it spent the next eight months scrambling for financial assistance, and was only able to continue operating after large contributions were raised by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which donated $150m between them.
The US decision to stop all funding to the UN agency, which it called an “irredeemably flawed operation”, was quickly criticised by the Palestinian leadership.
A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also pushed back against claims that the agency was inefficient.
“UNRWA has a strong record of providing high-quality education, health and other essential services, often in extremely difficult circumstances,” a statement by Stephane Dujarric read.
“The secretary-general calls on other countries to help fill the remaining financial gap, so that UNRWA can continue to provide this vital assistance, as well as a sense of hope this vulnerable population.”
What is UNRWA?
Originally established as a temporary solution, UNRWA was set up after the creation of Israel in 1948 to assist the more than 700,000 Palestinians who were forcibly expelled from their towns and villages.
Since then, it has helped four generations of Palestinians with basic needs, including housing, healthcare, education and social services.
Employing more than 30,000 staff, it mostly works in education, and operates closely with local government bodies.
It helps more than half of the Gaza Strip‘s two million population, a region which has been devastated by more than 10 years of blockade.
According to UNRWA, Gaza suffers from a 44 percent unemployment rate.
Gunness, the agency’s spokesman, told Al Jazeera that if UNRWA didn’t receive emergency cash injection in the next 30 days, when its funds are expected to run dry, a “doomsday scenario” could unfold.
“Let there be no mistake; this decision is likely to have a devastating impact on the lives of 526,000 children who receive a daily education from UNRWA; 3.5 million sick people who come to our clinics for medical care; 1.7 million food insecure people who receive assistance from us, and tens of thousands of vulnerable women, children and disabled refugees who come to us.
“If we don’t fill a funding gap of $217m very quickly, they are all likely to suffer.”
I was born in a tent in a refugee camp. I was raised in camp. Without the help of UNRWA, I would not have had clothes, food or schooling.
Mohammad Oweis, Palestinian refugee
What programmes does it offer?
According to UNRWA, the US provided $364m to the agency last year. Other member states donated $650m.
The funds helped provide for basic commodities such as flour, rice, sugar, powdered milk, canned meats, pharmaceuticals and drugs, as well as general supplies such as school textbooks and equipment.
Mohammad Oweis, a Washington, DC-based political analyst and researcher, who specialises in the Middle East, said the agency helped people such as himself go on to live a better life.
“I was born in a tent in a refugee camp. I was raised in camp. Without the help of UNRWA, I would not have had clothes, food or schooling,” he said.
Why is funding being cut?
Key to the Trump administration and Israel’s criticism of UNRWA is the way the agency counts the refugees – its total includes the descendants of refugees who were originally displaced by the creation of Israel.
Israel fears that the passing of refugee status from parents to children could threaten the country’s so-called “Jewish character”, as Palestinians claim the right of return to their ancestral homeland.
Earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for UNRWA to be scrapped and accused the agency of helping “fictitious refugees”.
“UNRWA is an organisation that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and the narrative of the right-of-return, as it were, in order to eliminate the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.