By Teresa Welsh
The U.S. administration’s resumption of funding for the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency is welcome but is not sufficient to meet its severe budgetary strain, agency staff members said Thursday.
“At this point, what this funding means is increased stability and predictability. … But it does not meet all our needs,” said Matthias Schmale, director of operations in the Gaza Strip for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, during a briefing with reporters. “The reality is that our budget keeps growing in terms of the core services because of increased numbers of refugees we have to serve and increased need. … More will be needed to be able to expand and bring it to the levels of service that are really needed.”
The State Department announced Wednesday that UNRWA will receive $150 million in humanitarian assistance. It also announced $75 million in economic and development assistance for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as $10 million for peace-building programs with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Last month, the U.S. announced $15 million in humanitarian funding for food insecurity and the COVID-19 response in the Palestinian territories.
The announcement represents a shift in U.S. foreign policy. Former President Donald Trump’s administration had cut off U.S. funding to Palestinians in 2018 in an attempt to create political leverage over the Palestinian Authority in negotiations with Israel. UNRWA is an independent U.N. agency that is not controlled by the PA, and it operates in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
Before the Trump cuts, U.S. contributions to UNRWA for fiscal year 2017 totaled $359.3 million.
“U.S. foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important U.S. interests and values,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement announcing the new funding. “The United States is deeply committed to ensuring that our partnership with UNRWA promotes neutrality, accountability, and transparency.”
Elizabeth Campbell, director of the UNRWA Representative Office of Washington, said President Joe Biden’s approach to the agency is “quite different” from Trump’s.
“The previous administration … publicly said on repeated occasions over the past several years that defunding UNRWA was about advancing the U.S. political interest with the Palestinian Authority,” Campbell said. “That was an extraordinary departure in historic U.S. humanitarian policy. It thrust us deeply into a political lane in which we have no capacity to engage, no mandate to engage, and no desire to engage,” she added.
“We shouldn’t be used as a political tool to achieve political objectives.”
The new U.S. funding will help support education for the over 500,000 Palestinian children who attend UNRWA schools, which staff members said have needed to increase class sizes due to a lack of funding for teachers. The agency has also had to leave staff roles vacant or change contracts to reduce costs, and it has not been able to purchase internet access, computers, and other supplies.
Gwyn Lewis, director of UNRWA operations in the West Bank, said some salaries from December had to be paid with money from 2021 because accounts were exhausted by the end of the year.
“All of this needs funding,” Lewis said. “Day-to-day expenses are really a challenge. So this funding is really very, very welcome but it is not sufficient.”
UNRWA staffers consider how will they survive without salaries
The United Nations’ Palestinian relief agency said it needed $70 million by the end of November to prevent staff salary cuts.
UNRWA staff members said they desperately need funding for health care efforts, which they have been providing to Palestinians via telehealth and medicine deliveries during the pandemic. They have also been providing deliveries of basic hygiene items and food assistance.
More money will also be needed to vaccinate the Palestinian population against COVID-19. Lewis said UNRWA had received 200,000 doses from the COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative, which she called “a drop in the bucket” to meet actual need. She said UNRWA is working with Israeli authorities to increase vaccine access, which has been restricted.
According to Campbell, UNWRA’s donor base must expand to include all U.N. member states so the agency can properly fund its operations and not remain too reliant on a single donor. She said she expects additional funding from the U.S. this year but did not know when it would be announced.
“We’re a civilian organization and a humanitarian organization,” Campbell said. “This administration has restored that.”