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Said Arikat

Donors shirk their obligations to UNRWA

A man stands atop a bombed house during the January winterstorm (AFP)

Date of publication: 2 February, 2015

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Comment: UNRWA has to suspend cash payments to a Gazan population suffering not only the devastation wrought by Israel's military, but an unusually harsh winter and the apparent apathy of a world that will make pledges but won't deliver.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, announced on 27 January that it is suspending cash payments to those who so desperately need it.

The agency, whose acronym has historically engendered feelings of tender fondness or outrageous hostility depending on where one stands on the Palestinian tragedy, explained in its statement that it has been forced to

     Where is the US$ 5.4 billion that was pledged at the Cairo Donor Conference held last October?

suspend its cash assistance programme in Gaza to tens of thousands of people for repairs to damaged and destroyed homes and for rental subsidies to the homeless.

For good as for bad, UNRWA (al-Wakalah in Arabic) – which was established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is "mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees" – has been a stark reminder of the tragedy that befell the Palestinian people since early after their land was forcibly usurped from underneath their feet to make room for the creation of Israel.

Straining with exhaustion under the weight of over 96,000 Palestinian refugee family homes that were either completely destroyed or badly damaged during Israel's horrific war against the people of Gaza last summer, UNRWA said it needed US$720 million to address an unfolding humanitarian disaster that has been exacerbated by an unusually harsh winter. To date, it has only received US$135 million in pledges, leaving a shortfall of US$585 million.

The agency, whose schools, clinics and other facilities were deliberately, maliciously and criminally targeted by Israeli bombardments, said that while "some funds" remain available to begin the reconstruction of totally destroyed homes, UNRWA has exhausted all funding to support repairs and rental subsidies leaving tens of thousands of Palestinians literally sleeping amongst the rubble; where children have died of hypothermia.

"UNRWA in Gaza has so far provided over $77 million to 66,000 Palestine refugee families to repair their homes or find a temporary alternative," said UNRWA Director in Gaza Robert Turner, acknowledging that while this was a "tremendous achievement, it is also wholly insufficient; we are talking about thousands of families who continue to suffer through this cold winter with inadequate shelter."

When on the same day, this reporter asked State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki if her government was aware of the looming disaster, and if it was doing anything about it, had a ready answer.

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“Well, let me first say the United States remains a steadfast supporter of UNRWA, which we believe plays an indispensable role in the region, particularly in Gaza." She added, "You’re right, over the past few years UNRWA has been dealing with chronic budget shortfalls as donor contributions have not been able to keep pace with the rising needs in places like Gaza and Syria."

Psaki, defending the historically benevolent American position towards aiding Palestinian refugees, was quick to point out that while," that hasn’t been a programme that the United States has been focusing or contributing our efforts to. We announced an initial $100 million contribution for UNRWA’s 2015 needs, including 38 million for emergency needs in Gaza and the West Bank. These funds support lifesaving interventions like emergency food assistance and management of UNRWA’s collective centres, which are still housing some 12,000 displaced persons through this difficult winter. This funding is in addition to the $74 million the United States provided to UNRWA’s flash appeal in 2014."

Where are the donors?

Then she emphatically said, "We certainly encourage other states to pledge and promptly deliver the funds they’ve already pledged to fully meet the urgent needs of Gaza’s civilian population."

Which of course leads to the crucial question: Where is the US$ 5.4 billion that was pledged at the Cairo Donor Conference held last October to great fanfare with donors, Arabs and internationals alike, much back-slapping for their own generosity to lift Palestinians from the quagmire of despair? Unless I'm wrong, virtually none of it has reached Gaza.

We all know that financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by the growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need and deepening poverty, and that as a result, the Agency's General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 percent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit (with the current deficit stands at $81 million.) But that is precisely the point. Delivering on the pledges made on 12 October 2014 will most certainly go a long way towards covering the deficit and giving substance to all the lofty rhetoric the donor countries made as they committed themselves to averting a potentially catastrophic humanitarian disaster for the Palestinians in Gaza. 

Let me provide the reminder here. At the conclusion of the Cairo Donor Conference on Sunday, 12 October 2014, Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende offered the sum of $ 5.4 billion in aid to the Palestinians at the end of one-day (donor) conference, going far beyond the $4 billion figure initially sought by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

For his part, the host, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said: "The message was clear to the international community that the Palestinian brothers are not alone."

Qatar pledged $1 billion toward the reconstruction, while the United Arab Emirates promised $200 million.

The pledges followed US Secretary of State John Kerry’s earlier announcement that America was giving $212 million immediate assistance. Not to be outdone, the European Union pledged $568 million, while Turkey, which has been seeking a growing role in the Middle East in recent years, said it was donating $200 million.

Abbas, told delegates that the latest Gaza war caused "tragedies that are difficult to be described by word... Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble" promising that, "the (Palestinian) government will carry out the reconstruction plan with full responsibility and transparency in coordination with the UN, the donors, international financial institutions, civil society and the private sector."

As the conference adjourned, Kerry told the participants that a "ceasefire was not peace", and that, "Out of this conference must come not just money but a renewed commitment from everybody to work for peace that meets the aspirations of all, for Israelis, for Palestinians, for all people of this region," pledging, "The full commitment of President (Barack) Obama, myself and the United States to try to do that."

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the conference in monotonic diplomatic language, "We must not lose sight of the ... causes of the recent hostilities, of a certain occupation that has lasted almost half a century, the continued denial of Palestinian rights and the lack of tangible progress in peace negotiations."

Indeed the UN and the US, or the world for that matter, must not lose sight of fact that the Israeli occupation is the source of all Palestinian suffering, big and small. For now, however, let's do the easy part of calling on the donors to meet their obligations, and on the Palestinian Authority (and Hamas) to stop playing cynical politics with their peoples' lives. A Palestinian child losing his life to hypothermia is no less criminal that losing it to an Israeli artillery-shell.

Most Palestinians want to see UNRWA become a part of their past and not their future, with the monumental injustice that has befallen them as a result of Israel's creation, remedied once and for all as they are resettled back into their historical homeland. But until then, UNWRA must be supported, and its amazing record over the past 66 years recognized.

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