UNRWA chief stands for ‘tipping point’ and seeks support from the Gulf state

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GENEVA (TUSEN) — The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees on Tuesday called on wealthy Gulf states to raise more money to help them provide education, housing and health care. He suggested that some of those countries are not keeping their money in place as they show their support for the beleaguered refugees.

Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, pitched to diplomats from key donor states to help fund his new $1.6 billion budget request this year – money that will first have to go to a million dollars shortfall to clear.

“For the fourth consecutive year, we will end (2022) with a major shortfall of about $70 million,” he told reporters, lamenting that the agency no longer has reliable and predictable funding.

Lazzarini expressed concern about increased tension, volatility, uncertainty and violence in the region “at a time when the agency is struggling to sustain its own operations.”

He warned that if UNRWA does not receive sufficient funding, “at some point we may reach a tipping point” and face a suspension of its activities in “such an unstable region” and “where people are so desperate”.

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UNRWA was founded in the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 to help hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes. Today, their numbers have grown to some 5.9 million people, mostly in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and neighboring countries in the Middle East. The agency provides social services, education and jobs to many.

Israel has objected to UNRWA’s school curriculum, claiming it promotes anti-Israel incitement, and has called for reforms in the organization. But it tolerates the agency, in part because it provides services that the Israeli authorities do not or do not want to provide.

Lazzarini said some traditional big donor countries – he mentioned Britain by name – have recently cut their budgets for overseas aid, which has had “a serious impact on the organisation”. He said the war in Ukraine had also diverted public attention from the needs of the Middle East.

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He reserved his biggest appeal to the wealthy Gulf states, which benefited last year from rising energy prices and high demand for oil and gas after the main producer Russia invaded Ukraine. He said he could not explain why their funding for UNRWA had declined in recent years.

“I don’t have the answer, but I see a few trends in the region. The first? Indeed, the Arab contribution in 2018 represented about 25% of the total contribution to the agency,” he said. “In 2021 it was less than 3% and last year it was 4%.”

Lazzarini attributed some of that support to Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

But some Gulf states “reduced their involvement” with UNRWA, even as they continued to sympathize with “the plight of the Palestinian refugees” with declarations of political support for Palestinians in UN bodies. That support has not “necessarily translated into a contribution to UNRWA,” he said in recent years.

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“I am very involved with the member states of the region and I really hope they come back as a strategic partner,” said Lazzarini.

Lazzarini noted a “new political dynamic” in the region, at a time when Israel has signed a series of diplomatic agreements with Arab countries, including the Gulf states of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, known as the Abraham Accords.

“There should be absolutely no contradiction in being a part of the Abraham Accords, making rapprochements and continuing to support the organization and the Palestinian refugees,” Lazzarini said.

In 2018, the United States, traditionally one of UNRWA’s largest donors, suspended its support for the agency under former President Donald Trump. The Biden administration has resumed funding, donating $340 million last year, making the US the largest donor.

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The US Express News writer Joe Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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