This is partly due to a reduction in support from Gulf states after the UAE and Bahrain normalized ties with Israel. Collectively, the funding from Gulf states has dropped from around $200m in 2018 to $37-38m in 2020.
In an interview with France24, Philippe Lazzarini, Under-Secretary-General of the UNRWA, said that his agency almost failed to pay salaries to staff at the end of 2020. Lazzarini said that since certain Gulf States normalized ties with Israel, funding had decreased.
In September 2020, Donald Trump facilitated the normalization of relations between the UAE and Bahrain with Israel – subsequently known as the Abraham Accords. Though it was hailed as a diplomatic victory, including by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, many warned it was a sign that Gulf states were giving up on the Palestine cause.
A drop in funding to the UNRWA suggests that those warnings have been realized.
According to the agency, the UNRWA provides “primary and vocational education, primary health care, relief, and social services, infrastructure and camp improvement, microfinance and emergency response, including in situations of armed conflict.”
The work of the agency is increasingly important, as those in Gaza suffer under a 13 year-long siege and Palestinian refugees in Syria are living in dire poverty as the civil war continues.
This week, a spokesperson for the agency revealed to AP that the UAE’s support had reduced from $51.08 million in 2018 and 2019 to just $1 million in 2020.
“We really are hoping that in 2021 they will go back to the levels of the previous years," the spokesperson said.
UNRWA is on the brink of a financial collapse
“I’m definitely calling on the Gulf countries to be on board, to be partners of UNRWA… In 2018, at the time of the US defunding, their collective contribution was around $200m but decreased in 2019 significantly and further decreased in 2020 to reach a total contribution of $37-38m,” Lazzarini told France24.
“UNRWA is on the brink of a financial collapse. 2020 has been an unprecedented year… We were struggling to get the financial resources at the time [and] needs have significantly increased, partly due to Covid-19. In fact, the agency never really recovered from the US defunding of 2018,” Lazzarini said.
In September 2018, the then-Trump administration ended all US funding to the agency and assured Israel that any further funding from Gulf states to Palestinian refugees through the agency would be done on US terms.
It was reported that the long-term US goal was to completely redefine the role of the agency and of Palestinian refugeehood. According to one source for the Washington Post, the Trump administration sought to change the official figure of five million Palestinian refugees to fewer than a tenth of that number.
It is possible that the decline in funding was part of the agreement that bought the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel to the negotiation table.
Lazzarini says he has heard positive signs from the Biden administration that they will “reengage with UNRWA.” Nevertheless, the drop in funding from Gulf states suggests a further distancing between traditionally pro-Palestine states and Palestinians in the Territories and refugees in neighboring countries.
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