Renewed US assistance won’t end UNRWA’s financial troubles

A Palestinian boy receives food supplies from a UNRWA warehouse in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (File/AFP)
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Updated 06 June 2021

Renewed US assistance won’t end UNRWA’s financial troubles

  • Spokesman says pandemic has hit both the aid agency and the Palestinians it serves badly
  • COVID-19 pandemic has been hindering UNRWA’s ability to service the population in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon

AMMAN: The UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has hailed the US administration’s resumption of aid as politically significant but said its longstanding financial crisis will continue during 2021, should no more donations come.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has announced the resumption of assistance to Palestinians, including to UNRWA, signaling a U-turn from the policies of President Donald Trump, who cut off assistance to the agency in 2018.
The State Department said it would provide a total of $235 million in assistance to projects in the West Bank and Gaza and to UNRWA, which provides aid and other vital services, including education and critical health care services to 5.7 million Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
As detailed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in April, $150 million will be go to UNRWA, $75 million to economic and development assistance and $10 million to peace-building programs.
UNRWA Spokesperson Sami Mshasha has said that the US’s renewed assistance to UNRWA is extremely important but the money pledged is still below Washington’s regular donation to the relief agency.
“Despite the announcement of the Biden administration that they will resume the support to the agency, till the end of 2017 the US was our largest donor with a donation of $260 million, which represented at that time one fourth of our budget. This year they have announced that they will only be giving us $150 million to our regular services and regular budget, as well as our emergency operations,” Mshasha said in an interview with Arab News.
Mshasha explained that UNRWA has entered 2021 with a budget deficit exceeding $200 million, part of which was a carry-over of liabilities the agency had failed to pay in 2020. “As we speak, we are looking at a budget deficit exceeding $150 million and this is a serious one with (the agency’s) budget of 1.2 billion that covers our regular operations and emergency operations.
“The American resumption of aid is extremely important politically as well as financially and it will prompt other donors either to resume the levels of funding that (UNRWA) enjoyed from them in years before or to step up and increase their funding.”
The spokesperson said that some of UNRWA’s cash crisis has deepened with its longtime donors either cutting off or reducing their donations as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and its accompanying economic hardships. “So the additional money from the US is basically balanced out by the fact that two other major donors have indicated that they will not be able to meet their annual obligations as in past years even though their contributions remain important for us.”
Mshasha also said that Washington has announced additional assistance to UNRWA following the recent conflict in Gaza to help an early recovery and meet the needs of the coastal enclave’s population. “(It is) not clear how much but it will be an additional money.”
“All in all, the financial situation of the agency is very dire,” he said, explaining that UNRWA is still applying strict austerity measures on its 28,000 staff members to address the budget deficit, continue delivering its health, education, relief and social services to Palestinian refugees and meet its obligations to external services providers.
The spokesperson explained that UNRWA has launched an emergency appeal of $232 million to finance its operations in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) in 2020 and another appeal of $380 million for 2021. “In both these emergency portals, we (are) also envisioning a budget deficit – a huge one in that.”
COVID-19
Mshasha explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has been hindering UNRWA’s ability to service the population in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon and meet their increasing health and economic needs.  
In addition to health services and vaccination, he explained that the relief agency is struggling to repair the “economic devastation” of the population – most of them are daily-paid workers who ended up unemployed as a result of the pandemic. “Those people are to be added to the number of people who are under the poverty line and thus qualify for our food and in-kind assistance in Gaza, Syria and elsewhere.”
He also said that UNRWA is working with health agencies to vaccinate as many people as possible “but the inoculation rate is still very low” in besieged Gaza, war-hit Syria and crisis-hit Lebanon. “We are now concerned about a third wave (of COVID-19) after the recent conflict in Gaza and this is now on the top of all worries and challenges gripping the Strip.”
UNRWA has launched a $ 94.6 million COVID-19 appeal to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on Palestine refugees in the Middle East, with a special focus on health, cash assistance and education.
Mshasha explained that the agency is working with its strategic dialogue partners Sweden and Jordan which, he said, have been leading the efforts to solve UNRWA’s financial problems. They plan to organize an international conference to bring together the agency’s donors and supporters to discuss their long-term arrangements for UNRWA. The spokesperson expected to the international conference to take place in October.
“We need a predictable framework for our financial situation, one we can build on and plan upon and one that is multiyear.”


Israel approves ultranationalist Jewish march in Jerusalem

Updated 18 May 2022

Israel approves ultranationalist Jewish march in Jerusalem

  • The office of Internal Security Minister Omer Barlev said the march would take place on May 29 along its “customary route” through Damascus Gate
  • Each year, thousands of Israeli nationalists participate in the march, waving Israeli flags, singing songs and in some cases, chanting anti-Arab slogans

JERUSALEM: Israeli authorities on Wednesday said they have given the go-ahead for flag-waving Jewish nationalists to march through the heart of the main Palestinian thoroughfare in Jerusalem’s Old City later this month.
The decision threatens to re-ignite violence in the holy city.
The office of Internal Security Minister Omer Barlev said the march would take place on May 29 along its “customary route” through Damascus Gate.
Each year, thousands of Israeli nationalists participate in the march, waving Israeli flags, singing songs and in some cases, chanting anti-Arab slogans, as they pass by Palestinian onlookers and businesses.
Barlev’s office said the decision was made after consultations with police.
The march is meant to celebrate Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel subsequently annexed the area in a step that is not internationally recognized. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Last year’s Gaza war erupted as the march was just getting underway, even after authorities changed the route at the last moment to avoid Damascus Gate.
The Old City, located in east Jerusalem, has experienced weeks of violent confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators, and the march threatens triggering new unrest.
Tensions also have been heightened by an Israeli police crackdown during the funeral of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last Friday. As the funeral procession got underway, police pushed and beat mourners, causing the pallbearers to lose control of the coffin and nearly drop it.
Abu Akleh, a well-known journalist, was fatally shot while covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank last week. The Palestinians, including witnesses who were with her, say she was shot by Israeli troops. Israel says that Palestinian gunmen were active in the area, and it is not clear who fired the deadly bullet.


Pentagon finds no wrongdoing in 2019 Syria strike that killed civilians

Updated 18 May 2022

Pentagon finds no wrongdoing in 2019 Syria strike that killed civilians

  • The Times report said that 70 people, many of them women and children, had been killed in the strike
  • The US ground force commander for the anti-Daesh coalition received a request for air strike support from Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the extremists

WASHINGTON: An investigation into a 2019 strike by US forces in Syria that killed numerous civilians found no violations of policy or wanton negligence, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
The internal US Army investigation focused on an operation by a special US force operating in Syria which launched an airstrike on a Daesh bastion in Baghouz on March 18, 2019.
The investigation was sparked last year after the New York Times reported that in the original strike the US military had covered up dozens of non-combatant deaths.
The Times report said that 70 people, many of them women and children, had been killed in the strike.
The Times report said a US legal officer “flagged the strike as a possible war crime” and that “at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike.”
But the final report of the investigation rejected that conclusion Tuesday.
It said that the US ground force commander for the anti-Daesh coalition received a request for air strike support from Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the extremists.
The commander “received confirmation that no civilians were in the strike area” and authorized the strike.
However, they later found out there were civilians at the location.
“No Rules of Engagement or Law of War violations occurred,” the investigation said.
In addition, the commander “did not deliberately or with wanton disregard cause civilian casualties,” it said.
The report said that “administrative deficiencies” delayed US military reporting on the strike, giving the impression that it was being covered up.
The Times cited an initial assessment of the incident saying that about 70 civilians could have been killed.
Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said that 52 combatants were killed, 51 of them adult males and one child, while four civilians died, one woman and three children.
Another 15 civilians, 11 women and four children, were wounded, he said.
Asked if anyone was being punished for the civilian deaths, Kirby said the investigation did not find the need to hold any individuals accountable.
The probe “did not find that anybody acted outside the law of war, that there was no malicious intent,” Kirby said.
“While we don’t always get everything right, we do try to improve. We do try to be as transparent as we can about what we learn,” he said.

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World’s tallest building engulfed as Mideast sandstorms hit UAE

Updated 18 May 2022

World’s tallest building engulfed as Mideast sandstorms hit UAE

  • The 828m Burj Khalifa, which towers over Dubai and is usually visible across the financial hub, retreated behind a curtain of airborne dirt that shrouded much of the country
  • The Middle East’s sandstorms are becoming more frequent and intense, a trend associated with overgrazing and deforestation, overuse of river water and more dams

DUBAI: The world’s tallest building disappeared behind a grey layer of dust on Wednesday as sandstorms that have swept the Middle East hit the United Arab Emirates, prompting weather and traffic warnings.
The 828-meter (2,716 ft, 6ins) Burj Khalifa, which towers over Dubai and is usually visible across the busy financial hub, retreated behind a curtain of airborne dirt that shrouded much of the country.
The UAE is just the latest country in the path of sandstorms that have smothered Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others in recent days, closing airports and schools and sending thousands to hospital with breathing problems.
Capital city Abu Dhabi’s air quality index (AQI) soared into the “hazardous” zone overnight, according to waqi.info and the Plume pollution app.
The Middle East’s sandstorms are becoming more frequent and intense, a trend associated with overgrazing and deforestation, overuse of river water and more dams.
Experts say the phenomenon could worsen as climate change warps regional weather patterns and drives desertification.
Emirati authorities issued a nationwide warning urging residents to remain vigilant.
“Abu Dhabi Police urges drivers to be cautious due to low visibility during high winds and dust,” the police force tweeted, as residents took to social media to publish photos and videos.
“Please do not be distracted by taking any videos or using your phone,” it added.
A National Center for Meteorology graphic showed nearly all the country covered by the storm, with the warning: “Be on the alert: hazardous weather events are expected.”
Winds with speeds up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour are blowing the dust, it said, reducing visibility in some areas to less than 2,000 meters (2,200 yards).
However, a Dubai airports spokesman said there was no impact on air traffic. Weather conditions were expected to remain the same for the next few days.
In neighboring Saudi Arabia, badly hit on Tuesday, conditions eased in the capital Riyadh on Wednesday but continued to restrict visibility in the city center.
Emergency rooms in Riyadh hospitals received some 1,285 people suffering from respiratory problems over 24 hours from the sandstorm, the state-run Al-Ekhbariya channel reported late on Tuesday.
The Saudi national weather center reported that dust was also affecting visibility in the west and south, specifically in Assir, Najran, Hael and Medina provinces. Medina is home to Medina city, the second-holiest city in Islam.
The center predicted another sandstorm would arrive in the kingdom by Sunday.


‘Conflict, destruction’ prevent return to Iraq’s Yazidi heartland: NGO

Updated 18 May 2022

‘Conflict, destruction’ prevent return to Iraq’s Yazidi heartland: NGO

  • ‘Nearly two-thirds of Sinjar’s population — over 193,000 Yazidis, Arabs, and Kurds — remain displaced’
  • The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking minority who were persecuted by Daesh for their non-Muslim faith

BAGHDAD: Violence and sluggish reconstruction have prevented the return to Iraq’s northwestern town of Sinjar of its predominantly Yazidi population after the abuses of militant rule, the Norwegian Refugee Council said Wednesday.
Five years after the defeat of the Daesh group, which committed massacres against the Yazidis and used their women as sex slaves, the town’s Yazidi, Muslim Kurdish and Arab residents are no closer to returning home, especially after a surge in violence earlier this month.
The aid group said that “nearly two-thirds of Sinjar’s population — over 193,000 Yazidis, Arabs, and Kurds — remain displaced.”
The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking minority who were persecuted by Daesh for their non-Muslim faith after its capture of the town in 2014.
“Widespread destruction of civilian houses, new clashes, and social tensions” are preventing returns, NRC said in a report.
Out of 1,500 people surveyed by the aid group to determine how decisions to return home are made, about 64 percent “said their homes were heavily damaged.”
“A staggering 99 percent of those who applied for government compensation had not received any funding for damaged property,” it said.
“Families from Sinjar remain in displacement, with thousands still living in camps,” NRC’s country director for Iraq, James Munn, said.
“We need durable solutions put in place so Iraqi families can once again start living their lives and plan for a safer future.”
The aid group called on the Iraqi government and the authorities in the autonomous Kurdistan region to “prioritize the rehabilitation of infrastructure and the restoration of services to allow for safe housing, land, and property, alongside public infrastructure.”
Some “80 percent of public infrastructure and 70 percent of civilian homes in Sinjar were destroyed” during the conflict years ago, the NRC said.
In early May, fighting broke out between Iraqi troops and Yazidi fighters affiliated with Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), killing at least one Iraqi soldier.
The Iraqi army was seeking to apply an agreement between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region for the withdrawal of Yazidi and PKK fighters from Sinjar.
More than 10,000 people fled the latest fighting, adding to the population of displaced.


Iran seizes foreign ship with smuggled fuel, detains crew – IRNA

Updated 18 May 2022

Iran seizes foreign ship with smuggled fuel, detains crew – IRNA

  • Iran has been fighting rampant fuel smuggling by land to neighboring countries and by sea to Gulf states
  • Ship carrying over 550,000 liters of smuggled fuel was seized in Gulf waters, escorted to harbor in Hormozgan

DUBAI: Iranian authorities seized a foreign ship attempting to smuggle fuel out of the country and detained its crew, state news agency IRNA said on Wednesday.

Iran, which has some of the world’s cheapest fuel prices due to heavy subsidies and the plunge in value of its national currency, has been fighting rampant fuel smuggling by land to neighboring countries and by sea to Gulf Arab states.

The ship, carrying more than 550,000 liters of smuggled fuel, was seized in Gulf waters and escorted to harbor in the southern province of Hormozgan, where it was handed to judicial authorities for investigation, the agency added.

“We were able to identify and detain a ship carrying smuggled fuel intended to transport large-scale smuggled fuel shipments east of Maru Island,” chief of provincial border guards Hossein Dehaki said.

Several ships in recent months have been detained for smuggling fuel in the Gulf by Iranian authorities.