Skip to main content

Gulf states set to plug UNRWA funding gap but under US conditions: Reports

US approval would include future sponsors committing to redefining agency's status, as well as redefining status of Palestinian refugees
The European Union has said it will continue funding UNRWA and may increase its funding if necessary (Reuters)

Gulf countries will help plug the gap left by the United States' decision to stop funding the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), but under new guidelines set out by the Trump administration, according to reports.

Israeli news outlet Channel Two reported late on Saturday that US officials had informed Israel that any further funding from the Gulf for the agency would be on US terms.

The channel said that US officials had allegedly allowed Gulf countries to fund UNWRA projects in the short term, but said that in the long-term the US goal was to use the mechanism to completely redefine the nature of the UN agency. 

US approval for funding would include any future sponsors to UNWRA committing to redefining the status of the agency, as well as the definition of Palestinian refugees, with the ultimate aim of eventually closing down the agency, it said.

It was unclear, however, which Gulf countries had agreed to plug the funding gap left by the US decision to stop funding UNRWA. 

Saudi Arabia is currently the largest Gulf donor, providing around $50m of the agency's $1.2bn annual budget. The US was by far the biggest single contributor at $364m.

Founded in 1948, UNWRA was established to deal with the mass displacement of approximately 700,000 Palestinians, following the establishment of the state of Israel, to Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. 

Since then, the descendants of those Palestinians who continue to be displaced have benefited from several UNRWA initiatives, including educational facilities. 

Officials familiar with the decision told the Washington Post that the intention behind the redefinition of Palestinian refugees, which would exclude the descendants of those originally displaced, would reduce the current five million figure to fewer than a tenth of that number. 

A major historical call by several Palestinian groups includes a demand for the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendents who were displaced since 1948. 

Israeli officials have welcomed the US move to cease the funding of UNRWA and supported the Trump administration's calls to redefine the nature of the agency.

"I welcome the US president’s decision to stop all funding [of UNRWA], which is active in perpetuating the problem of Palestinian refugees and demanding the right of return," the channel quoted Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz as saying.

"I also welcome the American aspiration to seek alternative ways of providing direct assistance to the populations in need of humanitarian support. The American decision is full support for Israel's position, which completely rejects the right of return for the Palestinians," Katz said.

Possible increase in EU funding

Meanwhile, the European Union, whose member-states' combined funds constitute the biggest donor to UNRWA, committed to continue sending money to the UN agency on Saturday. 

In a statement, the EU said it would consider increasing funding to the agency if deemed necessary, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. 

The EU said it will discuss with its international partners "how to ensure sustainable, continued and effective assistance to the Palestinians, including through UNRWA," in the run-up to the UN General Assembly later this month.

The statement stressed the importance of continued international support for UNRWA, which runs schools for hundreds of Palestinian children across the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

"The EU will continue to engage with the US and its other regional and international partners to work towards that common goal," the statement said.

It also urged the US to reconsider the decision to halt funding for UNRWA.

"The regrettable decision of the US to no longer be part of this international and multilateral effort leaves a substantial gap," the EU said, adding: "We hope that the US can reconsider their decision."

Washington has long been UNRWA's biggest single donor but is "no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement on Friday.

Nauert said there would be no additional contributions beyond a $60m payment made in January, drawing condemnation from both the Palestinians and UNRWA but a welcome from Israel.

Calling UNRWA an "irredeemably flawed operation," Nauert said the agency's "endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years".

UNRWA provides services to about five million Palestinian refugees, many of whom who say they fear a rapid decline in their conditions following the cuts.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.