Middle East Eye / January 25, 2023
Arab countries’ support for the UN refugee agency has plummeted as they pursue closer ties to Israel.
The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said on Tuesday that Arab countries’ rapprochement with Israel should not pose an obstacle to their funding of the organization.
“You can have strong bilateral relations with Israel and be a strong supporter of the agency,” UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini told Reuters.
The comments come as UNRWA – which provides services to nearly six million Palestinians registered in the Palestinian territories, including Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – warns that “compounding challenges” have placed it under “immense strain”.
Last year, it raised less than $1.2bn of the $1.6bn it had appealed for, Lazzarini said.
“It is true that in 2022, we succeeded to keep all our services running for the Palestinian refugees,” he said, adding though that it “came at a cost, at a very high cost”.
“For the fourth consecutive year, we are ending with a large deficit of above $70 million.”
The UAE, Bahrain and Morocco established official relations with Israel as part of the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020, and have since signed trade and economic agreements with Israel.
Lazzarini said that Arab countries should translate the solidarity they often express with the Palestinians “into tangible and substantial resources to UNRWA”.
In 2018, Arab countries represented 25 percent of the agency’s budget, but their share shrunk to three percent in 2021 and four percent last year, he pointed out.
“Whatever rapprochement or ties [with Israel] should not have the slightest impact on your commitment and your solidarity with the Palestine refugees and your support to an agency like UNRWA. We should not be the proxy or byproduct of any political considerations,” he said.
The agency warns that its needs have been skyrocketing as global crises, inflation and disruptions in global supply chains contribute to surging poverty and unemployment levels among Palestinians. Yet donors have been reluctant to boost funding levels.
The plea comes as Gulf states have boosted cash injections to struggling neighbours like Egypt and Pakistan. However, they have increasingly looked for investments, as opposed to direct aid.
Saudi Arabia’s Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland that Riyadh’s days of blank cheque writing to allies were over.
“We are changing the way we provide assistance and development assistance,” he said. “We are working with multilateral institutions to actually say we need to see reforms.”
Lazzarini said that more than 70 years after its founding, the agency desperately needed “a more sustainable model of funding”.
“We cannot and should not be always scrambling to bring in funds to cover our contribution to human rights and stability.”
He warned that UNRWA was in “a danger zone” and risked reaching “a tipping point”.
That “would most likely lead to the suspension of activities, which in such a volatile region … is certainly not the best recipe”.
UNRWA: ties of Arab states with Israel no impediment to aiding Palestinian refugees
Reuters / January 24, 2023
GENEVA – The head of the United Nations agency that delivers basic services to millions of Palestinian refugees said on Tuesday that certain Arab countries’ rapprochement with Israel should pose no obstacle to their funding of the organization.
UNRWA in recent years has come under pressure in part from a decline in funding from Arab countries, which last year accounted for a mere 4% of overall contributions to the agency after having made up around a quarter in 2018.
The decision by some countries like the United Arab Emirates to cut or even halt funding altogether coincides with a move toward normalizing relations with Israel as part of a series of agreements known as the Abraham Accords.
Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, said he saw no contradiction between supporting Palestinian refugees and building ties with Israel.
“You can have strong bilateral relations with Israel and be a strong supporter of the agency,” Lazzarini told Reuters.
“Whatever rapprochement or ties (with Israel) should not have the slightest impact on your commitment and your solidarity with the Palestine refugees and your support to an agency like UNRWA. We should not be the proxy or byproduct of any political considerations,” he said.
Established in 1949, UNRWA provides public-like services including schools, primary healthcare and humanitarian aid in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, the five countries or territories where most Palestinian refugees, or their descendants, from various Arab-Israeli conflicts live.
UNRWA appealed on Tuesday for $1.6 billion in funding to support its programs and operations.
Lazzarini, who said in November that UNRWA was in a funding “danger zone”, said some donors had already notified the agency that they might be forced to limit financing due to austerity measures at home.
“My message to our member states today is: Don’t take our ability to muddle through as a given,” Lazzarini said.
“It would be better not to test the tipping point and it should be much easier to make UNRWA a predictable partner because we are also an agency contributing to the stability in a region that is highly volatile.”
However, Lazzarini said Israel’s new governing coalition, which includes ultra-nationalist parties who want to annex Israeli-occupied West Bank land, has not had any effect on UNRWA’s ability to operate.
“We have normal access when it comes to delivering our services in Gaza and the West Bank, but we are very concerned about the increased violence impacting this community,” he said.
Last year saw the worst levels of violence in the West Bank in more than a decade after Israel launched a crackdown on militants in response to fatal Palestinian street attacks.
Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Cecile Mantovani; editing by Mark Heinrich