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.”
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.”

Shark attack kills two women in Egypt’s Red Sea: ministry

Updated 03 July 2022

Shark attack kills two women in Egypt’s Red Sea: ministry

  • All beaches in the area have been closed down

CAIRO: Two women were killed in a shark attack in a resort town on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, the environment ministry said Sunday, after video said to be of one attack emerged.
“Two women were attacked by a shark while swimming” in the Sahl Hasheesh area south of Hurghada, the Egyptian ministry said on Facebook, adding that they had both died.
The statement did not provide any detail on their identities.
But Red Sea governor Amr Hanafi had ordered on Friday the closure of all beaches in the area for three days after “an Austrian tourist had her left arm torn off, seemingly in a shark attack.”
Social media users on Friday had shared a video — the authenticity, date and location of which AFP could not independently verify — showing a swimmer struggling before what appeared to be a pool of blood emerged around her.
A task force is working to “identify the scientific causes and circumstances of the attack” and determine “the reasons behind the shark’s behavior that resulted in the incident,” the environment ministry said.
The Red Sea is a popular tourist destination, where sharks are common but rarely attack people swimming within authorized limits.
In 2018, a Czech tourist was killed by a shark off a Red Sea beach. A similar attack killed a German tourist in 2015.
In 2010, a spate of five attacks in five days unusually close to the shore of tourist hotspot Sharm el-Sheikh killed one German and injured four other foreign tourists.
Egypt is currently struggling to overcome rising inflation and a recent currency depreciation.
The country relies heavily on tourism revenues from the Red Sea, which accounts for some 65 percent of tourists visiting the country.
The tourism industry has been battered by successive blows over the past decade, including the country’s 2011 uprising, ensuing unrest and the coronavirus pandemic.


Israel says it will test bullet that killed reporter, Palestinians disagree

Updated 03 July 2022

Israel says it will test bullet that killed reporter, Palestinians disagree

JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH: Israel said on Sunday it would test a bullet that killed a Palestinian-American journalist to determine whether one of its soldiers shot her and said a US observer would be present for the procedure that could deliver results within hours.
The Palestinians, who on Saturday handed over the bullet to a US security coordinator, said they had been assured that Israel would not take part in the ballistics.
Washington has yet to comment. The United States has a holiday weekend to mark July 4.
The May 11 death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh during an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank, and feuding between the sides as to the circumstances, have overshadowed a visit by US President Joe Biden due this month.
The Palestinians accuse the Israeli military of killing her deliberately. Israel denies this, saying Abu Akleh may have been hit by errant army fire or by one of the Palestinian gunmen who were clashing with its forces.
“The (ballistic) test will not be American. The test will be an Israeli test, with an American presence throughout,” said Israeli military spokesman Brig.-General Ran Kochav.
“In the coming days or hours it will be become clear whether it was even us who killed her, accidentally, or whether it was the Palestinian gunmen,” he told Army Radio. “If we killed her, we will take responsibility and feel regret for what happened.”
Akram Al-Khatib, general prosecutor for the Palestinian Authority, said the test would take place at the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
“We got guarantees from the American coordinator that the examination will be conducted by them and that the Israeli side will not take part,” Al-Khatib told Voice of Palestine radio, adding that he expected the bullet to be returned on Sunday.
An embassy spokesperson said: “We don’t have anything new at this time.”
Biden is expected to hold separate meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders on July 13-16. The Abu Akleh case will be a diplomatic and domestic test for new Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
Israeli Deputy Internal Security Minister Yoav Segalovitz said Lapid had been involved in “managing the arrival and transfer of this bullet.”
“It will take a few days to conduct a ballistic test, with several experts, to ensure that there is an unequivocal assessment,” Segalovitz told Army Radio.

Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection

Updated 02 July 2022

Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection

  • Regional actors voice concerns over potential military operation in Tal Rifaat and Manbij 
  • “No need for hurry. We don’t need to do that,” Turkish President Erdogan told journalists in Madrid

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey is in no rush to stage a new military operation against armed Kurdish militants.

But regional actors have voiced their concerns over the potential Turkish offensive against the towns of Tal Rifaat and Manbij.

“No need for hurry. We don’t need to do that,” Erdogan told journalists in Madrid, where he met with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Erdogan offered no timeline for the planned operation.

The stakes are high. Experts believe that Turkey still lacks Russian backing for a military intervention against Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be a terror group with direct links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the ORSAM think tank in Ankara, said that Russia’s failure to back the operation remains its major obstacle.

“Ankara decided to launch a military offensive on Syria while the world’s attention is focused on the war in Ukraine — and after thousands of Russian troops withdrew from Ukraine. However, Russia cannot risk looking weak in both Ukraine or Syria by giving the greenlight to a Turkish operation now,” he told Arab News.

Orhan noted that Turkey only hit targets along the Turkish-Syrian border as retaliation against attacks by the YPG.

“I don’t expect a larger-scale operation in which the Syrian National Army would serve as ground forces and the Turkish military would give aerial support,” he said.

Ankara has previously conducted three military operations in the area: Euphrates Shield in 2016, Olive Branch in 2018, and Peace Spring in 2019.

Troop numbers from both Russia and the Syrian regime have been increasing in northern Syria since early June ahead of a potential Turkish operation.

Iran has also been very vocal in its opposition of any Turkish military operation in the area.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saaed Khatibzadeh recently said: “The Syria file is a matter of dispute between us and Turkey.”

On Saturday, Iran’s foreign minister paid a visit to Damascus following Turkey’s threats to launch the new offensive.

“Both from an ideological and strategic perspective, Iran accords importance to protecting Shiite settlements — especially the two Shiite towns of Nubl and Al-Zahra. And there are also some Shiite militia fighting along with the YPG in Tal Rifaat,” Orhan said.

“However, at this point, Russia’s position is much more (important to Turkey) than Iran’s concerns, because Russia controls the airspace in northern Syria and it would have to withdraw Russian forces before approving any Turkish operation,” he added.

Some experts have suggested that Turkey used its potential Syria operation as a bargaining chip during its recent negotiations with Washington. When Erdogan met Biden on June 29, they discussed the importance of maintaining stability in Syria, according to the White House readout.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mainly led by the YPG, still holds large areas of northeast Syria. Syrian Kurds are regarded by Washington as an important ally against Daesh.

Although the Biden administration has repeatedly said that it acknowledges Turkey’s security concerns, it has also warned that any Turkish operation in northern Syria could put US troops at risk, and undermine the fight against Daesh.

Hamidreza Azizi, CATS fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, thinks that, given the course of events, the Turkish operation is inevitable.

“It (will) happen sooner or later. Because Turkish leaders have been maneuvering on what they see as threats Turkey is facing from northern Syria, we should expect some kind of military operation,” he told Arab News.

“But the scope of the operation has been a matter of speculation because, in the beginning, Turkish officials were talking about a vast area from Tal Rifaat and Manbij to east of the Euphrates, but they reconsidered after US opposition to the expansion of the operation east of the Euphrates,” Azizi said.

Azizi expects a limited operation to happen, the main aim of which would be to expand Turkey’s zone of influence in the area.

Turkey’s original plan had been to establish a 30 kilometer-deep security zone along its southern border both to push back the YPG and to repatriate around 1 million Syrian refugees in a wider safe zone.

President Erdogan recently announced a reconstruction plan to enable Syrians to return to their homeland.

Azizi believes that “the main friction” over this potential operation would be between Iran and Turkey.

“Iran is worried because if Turkey — or Turkish-backed troops — control Tal Rifaat, they have access to Aleppo, where Iran is present, which will give them further access to central Syria.”

Iran is still a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but also an important trade partner for Turkey.

Unless Turkey is able to come up with a new plan that alleviates Iran’s concerns, Azizi expects a response from the Iranian side — albeit an indirect one via proxy forces.

“Such a move could push Turkey to further strengthen ties with Arab states and cooperate further with Israel,” he said.


Protesters storm into parliament building in eastern Libya

Updated 02 July 2022

Protesters storm into parliament building in eastern Libya

BENGHAZI, Libya: Demonstrators broke into the building that houses the eastern Libya-based parliament in Tobruk on Friday, setting fire to parts of it amid protests over months of failed efforts to set the divided country on a path toward elections.
One witness, Taher Amaizig, said thousands joined a march to the parliament building calling for the current political powers to be dissolved and elections to be held. He said that as security guards tried to prevent people from entering, a protester was shot in the legs and other demonstrators then forced their way inside.
Videos circulated on social media showed protesters filing past burning piles. Friday is the first day of the weekend in Libya, meaning the building was likely empty when it was stormed. It was unclear what protesters intended by targeting the building
Other protests demanding elections were staged earlier in the day in several cities around Libya.
The unrest comes a day after representatives of Libya’s rival powers — one based in the east of the country and the other in the west — failed at UN-mediated talks in Geneva to reach agreement on a constitutional framework for national elections.
After more than a decade of war, the country is once again split between competing administrations, sliding backwards despite a year of tentative steps toward unity.
Oil-rich Libya has been wrecked by conflict since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, leading to a rise in rival governments. The administration based in the east is backed by military commander Khalifa Haftar, and a UN-supported administration is based in the capital of Tripoli. Each side is supported by different militias and foreign powers.
Tobruk, the seat of Libya’s House of Representatives, has long been allied with Haftar. More recently the parliament there elected Fathy Basghagha as prime minister to a government that rivals the Tripoli-based administration. Bashagha, a powerful former interior minister, is now operating a separate administration out of the city of Sirte.
Libya’s plan for elections last Dec. 24 fell through after the interim administration based in Tripoli, headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, failed to go ahead with the vote. The failure was a major blow to international efforts to end a decade of chaos in Libya.
The deteriorating economic situation was also a factor in Friday’s protests. In Tripoli, hundreds came out earlier in the day in opposition to the political crisis but also to rail against electricity shortages and rising prices for fuel and bread.

Libya’s Dbeibah says ‘election’ the only solution for crisis

Updated 02 July 2022

Libya’s Dbeibah says ‘election’ the only solution for crisis

The head of Libya’s Government of National Unity Abdulhamid Al-Dbeibah said he supports protesters in the country, agrees that all institutions should leave including the government, and there is no way to do that except through “election.”
Dbeibah’s comments come after protesters stormed the parliament building in the eastern city of Tobruk and staged the biggest demonstration for years in the capital Tripoli, in the west.