UNRWA chief: we face collapse from political attacks and lack of funds

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency that services Palestinian refugees is close to collapse due to vicious political attacks on it and lack of funding, its Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told a donor conference in Brussels.

“Today I have to raise the alarm, because if we do not have a real solution now and for the future, the institution is on the edge of a collapse,” Lazzarini told reporters after the meeting.

UNRWA has already struggled to pay its bills, including salaries, he said. Lazzarini spoke after an international pledging conference that raised $38 million of what had been a $100 million budgetary shortfall for November and December.

Lazzarini told reporters that UNRWA’s budget has been largely stagnant since 2013, even though the refugee population, as well as its needs, has grown.

To date, UNRWA services 5.7 million Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

 Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of UNRWA, visits Sheikh Jarrah on June 2. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS) Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of UNRWA, visits Sheikh Jarrah on June 2. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Member states have not been willing to back up their statements in support of the organization with actual funds, Lazzarini said.  

“Today I called on member States to deliver on their political commitment to UNRWA through commensurate resources,” Lazzarini explained to reporters.

When he addressed the conference, Lazzarini spoke of the financial crisis and the severity of attacks by UNRWA’s opponents.

“These financial threats are closely connected to the vicious and increasingly frequent political attacks that UNRWA is facing,” Lazzarini said.

He did not name the attackers but they have included Israel, the former Trump administration, prominent US Republicans and right-wing non-governmental groups.

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan urged countries not to donate to UNRWA ahead of the conference, stating, “UNRWA has long been part of the problem and not part of the solution.

“Instead of functioning as an agency for humanitarian and educational assistance, the agency functions as a political body that promotes the Hamas narrative [and] allows incitement against, and delegitimization of, Israel to be written into Palestinian [school] textbooks,” Erdan said in a statement he issued from Jerusalem.

In Brussels, Hillel Neuer, who is the executive director of the NGO UN Watch, stood outside the UNRWA conference venue and handed out information against the agency.

Neuer is among those who have charged that some of the textbooks used in UNRWA schools have promoted antisemitism and incitement against Israel. He also released a study this year that provided examples of antisemitic media posts by some UNRWA staff.  

“I’m here urging delegations from the US, EU, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Italy, Australia, Switzerland and many other countries to demand that their money to UNRWA – our taxpayer funds – not go to teachers who glorify Hitler,” he said.

UNRWA had said that it strictly prohibits antisemitism. Lazzarini reiterated this position at the donor conference.

“Let me be clear: as Commissioner-General and as a UN Agency, we have absolutely zero tolerance for any word or action that seeks to spread hatred, discrimination or violence towards any other individual, people or country,” Lazzarini stated.

“But there is nothing like zero risk when operating in the context of the longest unresolved conflict; a highly divided and emotional environment,” Lazzarini said. Still he added, “No Agency invests more than UNRWA into mitigating these risks.”

Those who argue against UNRWA, he charged, are exploiting these issues for political gain at the expense of services to refugees.

“We need to do more to counter these attacks, to expose their political agendas and shield Palestine refugees from the crippling impact of these attacks,” Lazzarini said.

“We need to address these attacks for what they are,” said Lazzarini, adding that “their objective” was “to erase the rights of over 5.7 million registered Palestine refugees as enshrined in international law and UN resolutions.”

The attackers, he said, want to “weaken the Agency through baseless accusations of politicization and incitement. This is both naïve and dangerous.”

Lazzarini warned that “If these threats are not addressed decisively, they will create a vacuum and a human disaster that this region simply cannot afford.”

UNRWA has faced a financial crisis this year, despite the Biden administration’s decision to restore funding to the agency, which had been halted by ex-president Donald Trump.

Until 2017, the first year of Trump’s presidency, the US had been the single largest donor to UNRWA, providing approximately $360 million in annual funding.

This year the Biden administration has pledged $318 million to UNRWA. The second top donor is the European Union, which has pledged $117 million, followed by Germany at $109 million, Sweden at $51 million and Japan at $49 million.

The renewed US funding, however, went to cover gaps left by countries that reduced their donations or chose not to donate.

Germany, for example, reduced its donation by $100 million, the EU by $30 million and the United Kingdom by $25 million.

Saudi Arabia, which last year gave $28 million, didn’t even make it onto the list of countries that donated $8 million or more.

Qatar and Kuwait, which were absent last year from that list, pledged $17 million and $11 million respectively this year. They were the only two Gulf countries on the list.

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