The head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has warned that millions of Palestinian refugees “cannot simply be wished away,” hitting back at a controversial decision made by the United States to cut off its aid to the support agency.
“I express deep regret and disappointment at the nature of the US decision,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said in an open letter to Palestinian refugees and the agency’s staff in which he pledged its operations would continue.
“No matter how often attempts are made to minimize or de-legitimize the individual and collective experiences of Palestine refugees, the undeniable fact remains that they have rights under international law and represent a community of 5.4 million men, women and children who cannot simply be wished away,” he added.
Krahenbuhl’s comments came three days after the US State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, referred to the aid program as “irredeemably flawed,” adding that the US administration had “carefully reviewed” the issue and “will not make additional contributions to UNRWA.”
Hours after Nauert’s remarks, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas lambasted the decision as a “flagrant assault” against Palestinians.
The US says Persian Gulf Arab states can plug the gap left from its decision to halt funds to a UN agency aiding Palestinian refugees but they have to follow American terms.
Last month, the State Department also announced that Washington had canceled over $200 million in funds for the Palestinian Authority, leading Palestinian officials to denounce the move as “blackmail.”
The US, which roughly provided one-third of UNRWA’s budget, suspended $65 million of the $125 million in aid it planned to contribute to the program back in January. Krahenbuhl said some Persian Gulf states had injected funds but UNRWA still needed more than $200 million. It is, however, not yet clear which states have received the green light to partly compensate for the Agency’s budget deficit.
Washington’s move against UNRWA forced Krahenbuhl to start a fundraising appeal, to which Belgium was the first to respond, offering a generous $23 million.
A few months later, Qatar, Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, New Zealand, Norway, Korea, Mexico, Slovakia, India and France also pledged $100 million in new financing to UNRWA after an emergency donor conference held in Rome back in March.
The Palestinian president’s spokesman says the US’ cut of funding to UNRWA is a ‘flagrant assault’ against Palestinian people.
UNRWA was originally set up in 1949 to take care of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war in the Middle East mainly through providing them with humanitarian aid. It was initially established as a temporary agency, but it has continued to provide support for Palestinian refugees for the better part of six decades.
It currently supports more than five million Palestinians across in besieged Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, providing them with health care, education and social services. Most are descendants of the roughly 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.
Separately on Monday, UNRWA opened its school year as scheduled in Lebanon. Studies in UNRWA-run schools in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip got under way on Wednesday.