Palestinians dread austerity measures by UNRWA

As the organization scrambles to replace withheld US funding, some Palestinians fear the aid cuts could be the beginning of the end for UNRWA.

al-monitor Palestinians take part in a protest against aid cuts outside the United Nations Relief and Works Agency office in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Jan. 21, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.
Adnan Abu Amer

Adnan Abu Amer


Topics covered

poverty, financial assistance, palestinian cause, unrwa, palestinian refugees, us aid, aid, funding

Jan 25, 2018

US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert announced Jan. 16 that the United States had sent $60 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) but withheld $65 million from the amount expected, calling on other nations to contribute more.

The announcement followed a Jan. 2 threat by US President Donald Trump to stop supporting Palestinians if they do not resume negotiations with Israel.

The United States is the top donor to UNRWA, contributing 24% of its total annual budget. With it, the body provides health care, education and social services for Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Other major donors include the European Union with donations estimated at $143 million, in addition to 40 other countries and institutions.

Amal al-Batsh, the director of the Union of Arab Employees at UNRWA in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “UNRWA is suffering from a deficit of $146 million, which prompted it to borrow from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to pay its employees’ salaries in December.”

She added, “This financial crisis will effect all sectors and force UNRWA to undertake austerity measures in terms of health care, education and relief, affecting 450 teachers in Gaza whose contracts expire on May 30 and might not be renewed.”

Palestinians were angered by Washington's decision and protested in Nablus and the Gaza Strip on Jan. 18. On Jan. 20, the Union of Arab Employees called for protests in the five areas where UNRWA operates, threatening to go on strike and organize sit-ins and marches.

On Jan. 23, UNRWA staff in these regions held an hourlong sit-in in all the agency’s institutions, schools and health clinics in Gaza. Marches are set to take place on Jan. 29.

Prior to the US decision, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah held a meeting with UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl in his office in Ramallah on Jan. 14 to demand the international community continue providing services to refugees without downsizing.

In a Jan. 17 statement, Krahenbuhl said the US cuts put the education of 525,000 students in 700 UNRWA schools in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in jeopardy and place millions of Palestinians in need of emergency aid. He also warned of the move's implications for regional security.

Head of Hamas’ Division of Refugee Affairs Issam Adwan told Al-Monitor, “Washington's aid cut aims to strong-arm the Palestinian Authority to resume negotiations with the Israelis. In the long run, aid cuts will eventually put an end to UNRWA’s work.”

This crisis may have the greatest impact on the Gaza Strip. The Gaza branch is staffed by 12,000 employees out of the total 30,000 in all five branches. Given the economic blockade and the harsh living conditions under which Palestinians in the Gaza Strip suffer every day, the internal situation could implode once refugees in Gaza start seeing the consequences of US aid cuts. Such a development could contribute to increasing US pressure on Hamas in Gaza, which is why the movement issued a statement on Jan. 17 rejecting the US aid cuts, describing them as part of the US plan to quash the Palestinian cause and implement pro-Israeli decisions.

UNRWA spokesman in Gaza Adnan Abu Hasna told Al-Monitor, “This US action will leave UNRWA in a projected deficit of $150 million this year, forcing it to end its services. A global campaign was launched on Jan. 22 to raise funds to cover the deficit.”

Abu Hasna added, “We received a list of 250 Palestinian businessmen who could grant us financial aid. We will also turn to new sponsors such as Turkey, Russia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea to expand UNRWA's donor circle and approach Arab countries to commit to paying their share of UNRWA's budget.”

On Jan. 19, the US State Department announced that the United States will withhold the additional $45 million in food aid it recently pledged to the Palestinians under UNRWA's emergency program.

Abu Hasna noted that the program “benefits about 1 million Palestinians in Gaza, distributing food parcels to them every three months." He added, "UNRWA has classified 460,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza as living below the poverty line.”

Palestinian refugees in Gaza are bracing to hear unpleasant news from UNRWA such as a general austerity plan, general budget cuts, with the exception of salaries, the possibility of halting the payment of rent allowances to those whose homes were demolished in the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014, as well as freezing food and medical services, such as the winter package offered to those with damaged homes, in addition to an end to the unemployment program, a hiring freeze and not renewing the contracts of employees by the end of March.

Notably, the US aid cuts to UNRWA coincided with Israel claiming the agency is working to perpetuate the conflict with the Palestinians and employing Hamas members, demanding it be dissolved as soon as possible.

Salah Abdel Ati, the director of Masarat, told Al-Monitor, “The US financial cut is proof that Washington is a partner in quashing the Palestinian cause. This will only contribute to worsening the desperate situation of refugees in Palestine, which calls for the need to preserve UNRWA as a legitimate body and reject plans to eliminate its role through the gradual reduction of funding.”

Ali al-Rahman, a Palestinian refugee from the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “UNRWA is the only thing saving us from hunger because it gives us food aid and provides in-kind and financial assistance. Aid cuts would force us to face horrifying living conditions.”

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