Belgium announced Thursday an emergency pledge of $23 million to be allocated over a three year period to provide support in lieu of $65 million withheld from the $125 million January tranche to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) by the U.S.
Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the pledge would be “dispersed immediately.” He added, “For a lot of Palestinian refugees, UNRWA is the last life buoy.” De Croo said the allocation was made in response to the U.S. funding cut which left UNRWA with a payment of just $60 million for the first of two annual contributions to its budget.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in announcing the funding cut Wednesday at a briefing that the $65 million was being withheld but so far, not eliminated.
“It’s money that’s being frozen at this time,” she said. “It’s not being cancelled. It’s just being held for future considerations.”
The United States, far and away the largest donor to UNRWA, pledged $355 million toward agency operations in 2016. The second highest donor was the European Union, pledging just $160 million. The U.S. provides 30 percent of UNRWA’s annual budget.
“We would like to see some reforms be made,” Nauert said. “This is not aimed at punishing anyone.” She added that the $60 million that was transferred to the agency was sent “to ensure that teachers, and also health care providers can be paid their salaries. One of the reasons that we decided to do this is that we felt that not providing that money would run the risk of having the organization and the people there run out of funds and that those entities would have to be potentially closed down.”
Apparently, administrators at UNWRA weren’t listening: dozens of teachers at UNRWA-run schools in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria who had received termination notices at least two months ago were laid off this past Tuesday. So were approximately 100 workers — mostly maintenance personnel, janitors and security guards at UNRWA schools in 13 refugee camps — in Jordan as well. The agency justified the move by citing a delay in the transfer of funds from the United States as the reason for the layoffs.
But although the agency is trying to lay the blame for the layoffs at America’s doorstep, UNRWA had already decided to begin slashing expenses: an already ballooning deficit of $174 million preceded the U.S. funding cut.