U.N. Palestinian aid faces funding battle without U.S. help - agency

by Reuters
Thursday, 14 March 2019 15:44 GMT

Palestinians whose houses were destroyed during 2014 war, stand outside a United Nations-run school where they try to take refuge to protest against UNRWA's decision to stop paying rents, in the northern Gaza Strip December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

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UNRWA had to turn to countries as poor as Afghanistan last year for help after Washington withdrew its funding in August

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS, March 14 (Reuters) - The U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees said on Thursday it needed $1.2 billion in funding for 2019 as it faced its first full year without U.S. support.

Pierre Kraehenbuehl, who heads the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinians across the Middle East, said it had had to turn to countries as poor as Afghanistan last year for help after Washington withdrew its funding in August.

"There is no U.S. funding for the first time and no indication that they are reconsidering," he told Reuters on the margins of a donors conference for Syria.

"I can't think of a time, even in the 1950s, 60s or 70s, when we were without the U.S. ... they built schools, health centres and that is very important to recognise," Kraehenbuehl said.

Washington's decision to pull all funding further heightened tensions between the Palestinian leadership and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump at the time cited U.S. and Israeli criticism of UNRWA's method of counting people as refugees - which they say has created a growing number of agency beneficiaries.

UNRWA provides services to about 5 million Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza. Most are descendants of about 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel's creation.

Gulf states, Norway, Turkey, Japan and Canada stepped in with funding last year, while Afghanistan donated $1 million, Kraehenbuehl said.

He said it was unlikely that all donors would give the same amounts again this year, putting an increased burden on Europe.

Kraehenbuehl said Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and the resulting tensions with the Palestinians, had prompted the U.S. to halt funding to UNRWA.

Kraehenbuehl warned of the risks to 280,000 school children in Gaza who depend on the U.N. agency.

"Where do they go if they no longer have access to UNRWA education? What happens? We know: the levels of frustration (in the region) will grow," he said.

"It is crucial to keep children in school to have a personal horizon in the absence of a political horizon," he said, referring to the stalled Middle East peace process.

Washington's peace efforts are being led by Jared Kushner, Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law. Kraehenbuehl said he had not been consulted in drawing up the strategy, which has yet to be made public. (Reporting by Robin Emmott Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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