The European Union, Germany, Norway, Ireland and Kuwait stepped in this week to donate a total of $118 million in financing to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (Unrwa), after the United States cut $304 million of its annual support to the agency for this year.
The European Union alone upped its annual contribution by about $47 million, according to one of its press officers in New York, to total approximately $169 million for 2018.
“A big shout-out to all our partners and friends with us today,” Pierre Krahenbuhl, the commissioner general of Unrwa, told the media on Sept. 27, at the UN.
The new pledges from some of the world’s richest nations present an expression of multilateralism while sending a direct political message to Washington that Europe and other wealthy regions can counter the sudden, drastic actions by the Donald Trump administration against Palestine.
“The European Union and member states are already providing half of the budget of Unrwa,” said Federica Mogherini, the foreign affairs minister for the European Union, at the UN. “We will continue to invest in that because we think this is a key, not only humanitarian duty, but also investment in the two state solution.”
The new contributions, formally committed on Sept. 27 at a luncheon held during the UN General Assembly annual debate, leaves Unrwa with a $68 million gap. Sweden and Jordan catapulted the fund-raising effort, according to a European Union press officer. Earlier this year, Sweden signed a commitment of more than $200 million to the UN agency for 2018-2021.
It was a busy week for the Palestinians’ cause at the UN. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, which governs Palestine, spoke at the annual General Assembly debate in the morning of Sept. 27, referring at one point to the Trump administration’s actions.
“The US administration went even further in its assault by cutting assistance to the Palestinian National Authority, the UNRWA and Palestinian hospitals in occupied East Jerusalem,” Abbas said. “Then they’re speaking now about humanitarian aid. Even the humanitarian aid has been cut off.”
A late-night meeting, held near the UN on Sept. 26 by Abbas’s office, focused on how to realize the two-state solution for Palestine and Israel. There, Riyad al-Maliki, the foreign minister for the Palestinian National Authority, was unequivocal when he was asked about the US coming to the fund-raising luncheon the next day: “Not invited,” he said.
The new pledges do not ensure the viability of Unrwa beyond this year but alleviate some of the major current problems, including educating the millions of Palestinian children who attend schools paid for by the agency and have returned to their classes this month. The lack of money for schools has been considered a serious fallout from the US defunding.
Krahenbuhl confirmed that 118 positions in Unrwa in Gaza were eliminated this year, from a total of 12,500 jobs. The choice meant paying salaries versus keeping the agency’s food distribution service open, noting the decision was “fully justified.”
Peter Mulrean, a director at Unrwa who works in New York, knew in January that he would have to help find new cash sources for the agency, as its biggest donor, the US, began to disengage from the agency. The search for alternative funding has been underway since then, as it started the year with a $446 million budget shortfall. Over the year, Unrwa has secured additional money from more than 20 countries.
“There is another significant way of looking at this situation,” Mulrean said in an interview with PassBlue recently. “We’ve got widespread support from countries who haven’t necessarily given to us but did so because of the circumstances.”
He referred to India, Mexico, New Zealand and Malaysia, all of whom have raised their donations to the agency this year. They did so after the US announced its decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
India, for example, pledged $5 million in June, while it gave $1.2 million in 2017. Mexico also doubled its annual donation, from $250,000 last year to $500,000, according to Mulrean.
Although these countries’ contributions may have an ideological significance, the amount they gave hardly covered the hole left by the Trump administration. (In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 27, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, thanked Trump and Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, for cutting Unwra’s funding.)
World leaders are still trying to find a more enduring solution to securing Unrwa’s future. One possibility is a dedicated budget, approved by the General Assembly, to the agency. Krahenbuhl said that the idea “got great support last year,” but that relationships with core donors and partners are needed to reinforce multiyear agreements as well.
The agency, Krahenbuhl said at a Sept. 27 media briefing, is open to different avenues, including financing streams from the World Bank and the Islamic Development Bank.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates each gave $50 million more this year to their regular donations. Japan pledged $15 million beyond its annual contribution.
Lisa Laskaridis, a spokesperson for the Swedish mission to the UN, said of its $200 million gift, “With this, Sweden hopes for increased opportunities for UNRWA to continue to respond quickly and efficiently to humanitarian needs in unforeseen crises.”
After Trump announced in December that the US was relocating its embassy to Jerusalem, the status of the UN agency became immediately uncertain, when, a month later, the US gave $60 million to Unrwa, forgoing its usual $364 million.
“We made it clear when we made our $60 million contribution in January that the United States is no longer willing to shoulder a disproportionate share of UNRWA’s costs while many other donors lag behind and fail to match their rhetoric with real-world actions,” a State Department official said in a Sept. 25 email to PassBlue.
Moreover, Ambassador Haley said earlier this month that “Unrwa is a political arm that claims to help Palestinians. You saw we gave $60 million, Unrwa didn’t even say thank you. There is no one that has given more money to the Palestinians, up until this year [a total of] $6 billion.”
The influx of money to Unrwa this year might be what the Trump administration intended when it left the agency in the lurch. As the State Department official said, “UNRWA’s business model . . . is unsustainable and operates in permanent crisis mode.”
The official added the US was open to supporting the Palestinian cause through other means, saying: “The United States is ready to engage with governments in the region on planning for the transition of UNRWA services to host governments, or to other international or local non-governmental organizations as appropriate.”
But Haley said on Sept. 4, “We would much rather work with the Palestinian authority and the Jordanians than work with Unrwa.”
Maria Luisa Gambale contributed reporting to this article.
Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.