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Cash-strapped UNRWA warns it cannot pay upcoming salaries

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees hopeful Biden will restore funds severed by Trump administration
Palestinian refugees receive aid distributed by UNRWA amid the Covid-19 outbreak at the United Nations centre in Gaza City (AFP)

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees has said it is confident that US President-Elect Joe Biden will restore funds cut by the current administration, as it warned it lacked the funds to pay full November salaries to its staff.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) "never recovered" from the total funding cut imposed by President Donald Trump in 2018, agency spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai told AFP on Monday.

Before Trump's cuts, the US had been providing UNRWA with $300m a year, roughly a third of its core annual budget.

Alrifai said 2019 shortfalls were filled by additional support from several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. 

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Both the European Union and individual European states, notably Germany, also helped close the gap, she said. 

But this year, "financial support waned", Alrifai added, noting that the coronavirus pandemic "didn't help" as key donors faced increased domestic financial pressures.

"The agency needs to raise US$70m by the end of the month if it is to pay full salaries for the months of November and December," an UNRWA statement said. 

The funding shortfall affects 28,000 staffers, spread across Jordan, Lebanon, the occupied West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem and the besieged Gaza Strip.

Only those whose work is covered by special emergency budgets could be spared, Alrifai said. 

Israeli criticism

Israel has long been critical of UNRWA, arguing its presence was no longer necessary decades after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, during which some 750,000 Palestinians were displaced. 

Israel has also criticised rules under which Palestinians can hand down refugee status to their children.

After taking office in 2017, the staunchly pro-Israel Trump administration began echoing Israeli criticism of the agency before cutting funds the following year. 

Regarding the possible impact of Biden's election win, Alrifai said UNRWA was "very optimistic the US will resume its support".

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"We have engaged very closely with the Biden campaign team and they do understand the uniqueness of UNRWA for the stability of the region," she added.

Biden's 2020 campaign website said he would restore "humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people", but did not directly mention UNRWA.

The agency's core annual budget for 2020 stood at $806m, with an additional $300m for emergency programmes, including the coronavirus response and Palestinians caught up in Syria's conflict. 

Founded in 1949 in the wake of the creation of Israel, UNRWA runs schools and provides health services as well as other humanitarian aid to an estimated 5.7 million Palestinians with refugee status. While international law states that occupying powers bear responsibility in caring for local populations under their control, in effect Israel does not provide services to Palestinian refugees.

On Sunday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Biden to "strengthen" relations between the Palestinian leadership and Washington, which collapsed during Trump's term in office.

In a statement congratulating Biden, Abbas urged the incoming administration "to strengthen the Palestinian-American relationship", to strive for "peace, stability and security" in the Middle East and to "achieve freedom, independence, justice and dignity for our people".

Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Hanan Ashrawi tweeted "America Detrumped" following the announcement that Biden had secured the presidency.

"The world also needs to be able to breathe," she added. "Trumpism must be carefully scrutinised and remedied to restore the human, moral and legal equilibrium within and beyond the US."