The U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees failed to secure significant new funding Monday, as it faces imminent disruptions to its programs in the aftermath of a massive funding cut from the Trump administration.
In January, the administration informed the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, that it would contribute $60 million to its 2018 program budget — down more than $300 million from 2017.
"Facing the most severe funding crisis in our history, we had no time for pessimism or indecision, we reacted swiftly," UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl told donors. "Launching a multidimensional strategy in January to mobilize support, sustain our programs on the ground and prevent a major humanitarian crisis from sweeping through an unstable region."
After an emergency donors conference in March that raised $100 million, and additional contributions from Saudi Arabia and Qatar for $50 million each, the agency is seeking $250 million to keep afloat programs that assist more than 5.3 million Palestinian refugees across the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
"At this point, we do not have the income to ensure that the schools will open on time in August," Krahenbuhl warned. UNRWA provides education to more than half a million schoolchildren.
"In the absence of significant new funding, we will have to begin taking very difficult measures in July, impacting the level of services, as well as our staff," he added. About 90 percent of UNRWA's staff are Palestinian refugees. Krahenbuhl said funding cuts would affect the emergency operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as put at risk food assistance to 1 million people in Gaza.
The agency has also tightened its belt in response to an earlier funding crisis in 2015, cutting nearly $200 million from its budget over the last two-and-a-half years. Krahenbuhl said the agency has further reduced its core and emergency budgets by an additional $92 million this year and was on its way to financial stability when the Trump administration cuts were announced.
Krahenbuhl downplayed expectations for Monday's pledging conference, and a final tally of new contributions is not expected until later this week. Most countries cited assistance already pledged or said they would advance previously promised funds. Belgium was among the few countries pledging an additional contribution, announcing $4.7 million.
UNRWA supporters warn that halting or interrupting services could add to instability in a region already coping with conflict.
Until January, the United States had been UNRWA's single-largest donor state.
In a series of tweets at the time of the cuts, President Donald Trump said the U.S. pays the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars a year and gets "no appreciation or respect." He appeared to link the humanitarian funding to peace talks, adding, "But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"
In December, the Palestinians condemned the Trump administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move its embassy there, saying it had made it impossible for Washington to be an unbiased peace broker.
Relations have continued to deteriorate between the Palestinian Authority and the Trump administration following the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem in May.
It is not just U.S. aid to UNRWA that has been halted. At a Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on June 13, David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told legislators that "new assistance is frozen" to the Palestinians while it undergoes a review ordered by Trump — about $200 million this year.
"It [the review] will answer ultimately to the president in terms of decision-making, and it is based upon what is the most appropriate use of U.S. taxpayer resources to affect U.S. strategic objectives wherever the review may be — Syria, Gaza, West Bank," Satterfield said.