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UN panel aims to raise funds for Palestinian refugees

UNITED NATIONS — Officials of the UN Relief and Works Agency held a pledging conference in Manhattan on Monday to raise at least $250 million for the organization charged with caring for 5.3 million Palestinian refugees.

The shortfall, said UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl and other UN officials, stemmed mainly from the United States’ decision last year to reduce its contribution by 83 percent, a move that he assured journalists during a news conference was not based on the agency’s effectiveness.

He said U.S. officials have so far cut their 2017 contribution of $360 million to $60 million this year, prompting a worldwide appeal as administrators scramble to make up the shortfall.

Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the final fundraising figures were not available Monday night, but that “very positive momentum has been maintained” toward reducing the gap.

The United States in the past has supplied almost one-third of UNRWA’s normal budget of more than $1 billion.

“We cannot afford to allow UNRWA’s vital efforts to falter,” said Guterres, opening the pledging conference. “Failure to provide desperately needed resources comes with a price. More hardship for communities. More desperation for the region. More instability for our world. We need look no further than Gaza to see people who have suffered for too long and whose existence becomes more precarious by the day.”

Guterres, earlier in the day at a debate in the Security Council on the Middle East and North Africa, had identified the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as one of the most volatile hot spots in the region, calling it “central to the Middle Eastern quagmire.”

UNRWA provides comprehensive aid, from education to health care, to Palestinians living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. The United States has long provided almost 30 percent of its budget, officials said.

Tensions around the Israeli-Palestinian crisis began to reach a boiling point late last year when President Donald Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to reject that move.

Palestinian leaders said they were loath to accept a peace plan drafted by the United States since the Trump administration appeared to side with Israel in moving the embassy.

Simmering unrest exploded in May when tens of thousands of Palestinians lined up along the border fence separating Gaza and Israel in a demonstration dubbed the March of Return, which commemorates the 70th anniversary of the removal of Palestinians to make way for the creation of Israel in 1948.

More than 100 Palestinians were killed, most by Israeli gunfire, and thousands injured in the demonstrations over several days in mid-May on May 14, when the United States announced the new embassy had been opened and on the following day, which marks the anniversary.

Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, launched rockets into Israel in response, but no injuries were reported from that assault.

Monday’s pledging conference follows a flurry of fundraising activity, including a conference in Rome in March that raised $100 million in funding, another $92 million in self-imposed cuts by the agency itself and the launch of another online campaign, Dignity is Priceless, to solicit private donations.

UN General Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák said UNRWA, which was created in 1949 to alleviate a humanitarian crisis for the expelled Palestinians, should not have lasted this long.

“But the fact is: UNRWA was not set up to last for 70 years,” he said at the conference. “So, we have turned a temporary solution into the status quo. We need to face this reality. And we need to change it. And the only way that can happen is through direct and meaningful talks. And, ultimately, a two-state solution, which allows Israelis and Palestinians to live side-by-side, in peace.”

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