By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
GENEVA -The head of the United Nations agency that delivers basic services to millions of Palestinian refugees said on Tuesday that certain Arab countries’ rapprochement with Israel should pose no obstacle to their funding of the organization.
UNRWA in recent years has come under pressure in part from a decline in funding from Arab countries, which last year accounted for a mere 4% of overall contributions to the agency after having made up around a quarter in 2018.
The decision by some countries like the United Arab Emirates to cut or even halt funding altogether coincides with a move toward normalising relations with Israel as part of a series of agreements known as the Abraham Accords.
Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, said he saw no contradiction between supporting Palestinian refugees and building ties with Israel.
“You can have strong bilateral relations with Israel and be a strong supporter of the agency,” Lazzarini told Reuters.
“Whatever rapprochement or ties (with Israel) should not have the slightest impact on your commitment and your solidarity with the Palestine refugees and your support to an agency like UNRWA. We should not be the proxy or byproduct of any political considerations,” he said.
Established in 1949, UNRWA provides public-like services including schools, primary healthcare and humanitarian aid in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, the five countries or territories where most Palestinian refugees, or their descendants, from various Arab-Israeli conflicts live.
UNRWA appealed on Tuesday for $1.6 billion in funding to support its programmes and operations.
Lazzarini, who said in November that UNRWA was in a funding “danger zone”, said some donors had already notified the agency that they might be forced to limit financing due to austerity measures at home.
“My message to our member states today is: Don’t take our ability to muddle through as a given,” Lazzarini said.
“It would be better not to test the tipping point and it should be much easier to make UNRWA a predictable partner because we are also an agency contributing to the stability in a region that is highly volatile.”
However, Lazzarini said Israel’s new governing coalition, which includes ultra-nationalist parties who want to annex Israeli-occupied West Bank land, has not had any effect on UNRWA‘s ability to operate.
“We have normal access when it comes to delivering our services in Gaza and the West Bank, but we are very concerned about the increased violence impacting this community,” he said.
Last year saw the worst levels of violence in the West Bank in more than a decade after Israel launched a crackdown on militants in response to fatal Palestinian street attacks.