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Amid U.S. Cuts, Palestinian Refugee Agency Left in the Lurch

March 15th 2018


Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, bet she could compel others to help America shoulder the financial burden of aiding Palestinian refugees if only the U.S. choked off its own humanitarian aid spigot.

So far, the Palestinians have come up empty-handed.

Two months after the United States withheld $65 million in pledged funding to a U.N. agency that serves more than 5 million Palestinian refugees, no other country has stepped forward to increase its 2018 funding pledge.

In an effort to address the sudden cutback in U.S. aid, ministers from nearly 90 countries will meet in Rome Thursday for a major funding conference on Palestinian aid.

The conference — which is being convened at the request of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and co-chaired by foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan, and Sweden — will test whether Haley’s strategy will shock the rest of the world into meeting the gap created by America’s retreat from Palestinian aid. It will also place the U.S. delegation in the awkward position of defending U.S. cuts to Palestinian refugees, including those in Syria, at a time when the Trump administration been making the case for stepping up humanitarian relief to Eastern Ghouta and other besieged parts of Syria.

For decades, the United States has provided the largest share of funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides schooling, health care, food, and other vital services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. In 2017, the U.S. gave more than $360 million to UNRWA.

In January, the United States nearly halved the first installment of its pledged contribution to UNRWA, signing a check for only $60 million rather than the expected $125 million. Washington also mandated that none of that money could be used to support programs for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria. The United States subsequently blocked the distribution of an additional $45 million in emergency food aid for Gaza and the West Bank.

The cuts in U.S. funding, which makes up about 30 percent of the agency’s annual operating budget, has precipitated the greatest financial crisis in its nearly 70-year history, according to an UNRWA spokesperson.

The decision was taken in retaliation for the Palestinian Authority’s promotion of two U.N. resolutions condemning U.S. President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6, 2017, announcement that the United States would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

The impact of the budget cuts have been partially mitigated by the fact that at least 15 donors, including the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, have agreed to immediately distribute their entire annual contribution for 2018 so UNRWA can better absorb the initial financial shock. The move has injected some badly needed cash into the agency.

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