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A Vision for Palestinian Womens Rights Organizations based on the Global Study on the Implementation of UNSCR 1325
(Ten strategies for tackling issues pertaining to Women, Peace and Security)
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Date posted: October 27, 2018
By MIFTAH

  • Rise in UNRWAs deficit has greatly impacted its regular and emergency services quantitatively and qualitatively
  • UNRWAs overall budget is $200 billion, which includes the regular, emergency and project budgets
  • 100% of the emergency budget is allocated to the management of our emergency services in the West Bank and 70% of the emergency budget for Gaza came from the US administration
  • We launched the campaign Dignity is Priceless with the message that we will not accept financial pressures or the politicization of the agency
  • The cutting of American aid is a political decision par excellence and affects it as a humanitarian institution
  • UNRWAs definition of who is a refugee is based on clear legal criteria and is a definition that grants refugees inheritance status as well
  • No state has a right to impose its veto on UNRWAs work, neither in Jerusalem nor in the West Bank or any other location as long as there is no just resolution to the refugee issue as decided by the refugees themselves; there can be no discussion of other options
  • Palestinian and Jordanian diplomacies are very active in defending the agency, representing it and identifying its priorities

    Introduction:

    UNRWA Spokesperson and Public Relations and Communications Director Sami Mshasha warned of the impacts of the agencys financial deficit, which he said would greatly impact its regular and emergency services quantitatively and qualitatively in its various regions of operation, especially in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He described the US decision to halt funding as a political decision par excellence, which will affect the agency as a humanitarian institution.

    Mshasha was the guest of this months Hosted by MIFTAH in which he talked about the latest developments in regards to UNRWA, the challenges it is facing and the means of overcoming them. Following is the full text of the interview:

    **What are the biggest challenges UNRWA faces today in light of the recent US administration decision to halt its funding to the agency? Does UNRWA have an alternative plan to counter this decision?

    The United States took a surprising decision this year to cut its donations from $360 million to only $60 million and requested that this money is spent on our services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to exclude any spending in our areas of operations in Syria and Lebanon. It should be noted that this decision came months after an important meeting we held with the US administration in which UNRWA was well evaluated for its performance and is role as a stabilizing factor. Hence, the decision took us by complete surprise. Whats more, on August 30, they announced they would completely halt funding for 2019. In response, we immediately shifted the deficit by $149 million from 2017 because we could not get the necessary funds, therefore starting 2018 with a deficit of $149 million. This sum on its own nearly delivered a blow to our regular and emergency services in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and also our emergency services in Syria. The overnight increase in the budget deficit from $149 million to $460 million that is, one-third of the overall budget of $1.2 billion, which includes both the regular and emergency budgets and the project budgets had a huge impact on the agencys services, both quantitatively and qualitatively. 100% of the emergency budget allocated for the management of our emergency services in the West Bank comes from American donations and 70% of the emergency budget in Gaza which provides emergency services to 1.2 million refugees also comes from the US administration.

    Obviously, this put a huge and direct dent in our emergency services first and foremost. That is why we borrowed from the ordinary budget to cover the basic needs of our emergency operations. Then, when this money ran out two months ago, we halted all of our emergency services in the West Bank and did not renew contracts for 113 colleagues employed within the temporary contract system. This is because the emergency services system in Gaza takes the lions share of the emergency budget for the occupied Palestinian territories, or 90%. We had to cut some of our emergency services and only focus on one program, which is food distribution to one million people in Gaza every three months. And in addition to the 113 colleagues laid off, another 540 were put on temporary contracts. This is the first time UNRWA has been forced to resort to this measure, which has also impacted our ordinary services, namely educational services. The services were limited to class formation planning, to 50+1 (even though the average is less than that) while the number of patients per day for each doctors visit went up. Our ability to respond to the needs of the poorest refugees was impacted as well.

    **How will you face these budgetary challenges and how will this impact the services UNRWA provides for hundreds of thousands of refugees inside and outside of Palestine?

    UNRWA has taken action on more than one level. We decided on a new funding policy that is fierce in nature. We launched the #Dignity is Priceless campaign which sends a message that we will not kowtow or accept financial pressures; nor will we accept the politicization of the agency. This was a political decision that came on the heels of the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, which was followed by a halt to funding for UNRWA and even doubt over its jurisdiction, over the number of refuges and the definition of who is a Palestinian refugee. That is why we consider this decision to be politically-motivated and which impacts UNRWA status as a humanitarian institution. This is also why our campaign #Dignity is Priceless, from a non-monetary aspect, is a clear message. Our other action to adopt an aggressive funding policy. We focused on maintaining our traditional funders, the European Group, which is now the biggest donor. There is also the Arab nation group, then Canada and other member states. Additionally, we worked with the Arab League to raise the level of their donations. For the first time in UNRWAs history, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar each donated $50 million in addition to a donation by Kuwait of $42 million.

    Furthermore, we worked on donations through the Zakat system with a number of Islamic countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey. We also worked seriously with the BRIC countries (Brazil, India and China) and with countries that were giving small amounts but then upped their donations. Turkey, for example, donated four times more than usual to the agency and countries such as India donated $5 million instead of $2 million. We also turned to international funds; we spoke with the Islamic Development Fund under the sponsorship of the Islamic Cooperation Council, to set up a Waqf fund for UNRWA. Also, UNRWA has been in long-term talks with the World Bank to set up a special fund to support the education budget, which assumes two-thirds of our budget. For the first time, we also worked with the private sector and even tapped into individual donations. That is to say, there have been attempts to create an alternative to the losses we incurred from the US withdrawal. We have also worked towards increasing our budget allocated from the UNs budget; 4% of UNRWAs budget comes from this source. Our success from all these efforts is that we were able to decrease the deficit from $446 million to $64 million.

    **Has the recent US decision impacted the role and duties for which UNRWA was created, especially in light of the growing American and Israeli calls to dismantle it? Are there any legal obligations that would protect UNRWA, especially in terms of obliging the Security Council member states to fund it in accordance with UNSCR 194?

    First of all, no party or state can make the decision that UNRWA must go home. They can try and sway the decision in this or that direction but UNRWAs reference is the UN General Assembly. A total of 167 countries voted in favor of renewing UNRWAs work. It must be said here that the agencys definition of who is a refugee is a definition based on clear legal criteria and when UNRWAs mandate is renewed, these countries do not just renew its work with diplomatic and financial support but also they implicitly renew the definition of who is a Palestinian refugee. This definition grants refugees the inheritance status as well. This is not a status only UNRWA has adopted but also the UN High Commissioner for Refugee Affairs. That is, the same applies to Afghan refugees for example.

    Also, no country has the authority to doubt Palestinian refugee numbers because these numbers are given to UNGA member states when discussing the UNRWA file, in light of which budgets are determined. That is, when the European Group decides to allocate a certain sum, it decides on this based on refugee numbers from the agency. Hence, the budget reflects these numbers. The American decision in this regard is purely political and no humanitarian institution should be politicized.

    As for Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, historically there have always been lobbies, individuals and funds employed in an attempt to undermine the role of UNRWA, its neutrality, integrity and employees. They accused it of corruption, of promoting dependency and of ambiguous spending of funds. However, historically, these voices and these lobbies were on the margins and never had an impact. Unfortunately, they seem to be stronger now to the point they have started to influence decision-makers in some countries. This is the result of the current US administrations decision, but fortunately there are other countries that realize the extent of UNRWAs role in terms of its neutrality, reforms, integrity and competence. This is why the demands of the latter to dry up UNRWAs funding failed .The second failure is Barkats claim that he will end UNRWAs operations in Jerusalem; according to international law and all regulations and UN resolutions, East Jerusalem is an occupied city. The fact that UNRWAs headquarters is based there reflects this reality.

    In this regard, UNRWA has expressed its concern over the recent statements made by the Jerusalem mayor regarding its operations and facilities in East Jerusalem. UNRWA runs humanitarian operations in accordance with the UN charter and bilateral and multilateral agreements still in effect, in addition to related UN General Assembly resolutions.

    In particular, UNRWAs mandate by the UNGA is to provide protection and aid to Palestinian refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, until a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is reached.

    UNRWA has sought to maintain its operations in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, since 1967 in cooperation and on the basis of an official agreement still in effect with the state of Israel. The agencys important work is recognized in the field of education, health care, relief and social services in East Jerusalem and it is determined to continue providing these services.

    Such statements [by Barkat] conflict with the key principles of independent and honest humanitarian work and do not reflect the dialogue or interaction which UNRWA and Israel have traditionally preserved.

    Of course, we are very concerned about this issue. We provide basic services for 110,000 registered refugees in Jerusalem and its suburbs. We have 10 schools in this area and a large health clinic inside the Old City in addition to other clinics and services. However, while we remain concerned about this, we also know that his call will fall on deaf ears from the international community because it understands that UNRWAs presence in East Jerusalem is an extension of the legal and political reality, which is that it is an occupied city.

    **Legally, can the Israeli government halt UNRWAs operations in Jerusalem and close its headquarters?

    It could obstruct our work as employees going to and from Jerusalem. We have many colleagues who work at the headquarters in Sheikh Jarrah and in Shufat Camp. We also have a presence in other areas for people who carry West Bank IDs for which we receive permits from Israeli authorities to enter. Hence, we are continuously facing obstacles such as contracts or permits not being renewed and UNRWA cars are sometimes searched and delayed. We always try to make things clear; that we are a humanitarian institution and that we are doing important work even according to some Israeli politicians. This is an agency that carries out a role in the absence of political agreement. No country has the right to veto our work, neither in Jerusalem nor in the West Bank or any other location. There are binding laws in this regard. What we are concerned about is the growing voices calling for drying up the agencys resources or to transfer its mandate to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] and even casting doubt about refugee numbers. This is not to mention UNRWAs financial crisis and loss of funds, which could lead to even more obstacles in UNRWAs work.

    **Some reports are talking about an American plan to resettle Palestinian refugees in Arab countries. Have you been informed of anything like this?

    If you look at the statements from countries that host Palestinian refugees the Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian governments, they all have a clear and unequivocal stance on this. They say that if the political cause of Palestinian refugees is not resolved justly according to the refugees themselves, then no other options can be considered. Neither will their residency be made permanent in their temporary place of residence. So, for them, the case is closed. This stance was reiterated just recently in the UN General Assembly.

    **What about support for UNRWA from other countries in terms of the political will of the international community to find a just solution to the Palestinian cause?

    There was concern from some that the American decision could create confusion regarding UNRWAs work. Remember, we are competing with other global crises over limited allocations from donor countries. We were able to bring down the deficit from $446 million to $64 million and this is to the credit of countries that donated; with this donation they sent a clear political message saying they support UNRWA regardless of anyones misgivings. The European group and its members, Scandinavian countries, Japan, Canada and others stepped up and paid their annual allocations in one installment at the beginning of the year. Many also increased their donations. These countries were crucial to us in tapping into new countries that had not donated before. I think our efforts will bear fruit in 2019 and we will see some important developments.

    **Some believe that dismantling UNRWA could be used to demand the revival of UNHCRs role in returning refugees to their homes according to international references. What do you think?

    UNHCR deals with refugees of the world while UNRWA is only for Palestine refugees. There is coordination between the two institutions and frankly, there is not much difference between them in terms of legal premises. Even inheritance of refugee status is shared by both. A Palestinian refugee who is not within our five areas of operation but needs protection from the international community can take his/her case up with UNHCR.

    But for those who say the agency should be dismantled and its cases moved to UNHCR, let me just say this does not change anything in terms of the political demands of Palestinian refugees nor does it weaken their political position. It could however, weaken the humanitarian services provided to them because UNHCR is concerned with all of the worlds refugees and has a limited budget.

    **What about the role of the PA in supporting UNRWA? What efforts is it making to allow its operations and role to continue?

    Both Palestinian and Jordanian diplomacy is very active in defending UNRWA, representing it, identifying its priorities and also advocating for it. The tireless political efforts of the Jordanian government is what resulted in the Rome Conference last March, whereby we were able to decrease our deficit. Both of them, but especially the Palestinian diplomacy at the UN is very active and has impacted its resolutions. They advocate for UNRWA and work in coordination with us to urge states to donate and mobilize other resources. We think this had a big part in remedying the recent financial crisis.

  • Note: The content of this interview does not reflect the official opinion of MIFTAH. Responsibility of the information and views expressed in the interview lies entirely with the interviewee.

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