UN's relief agency for Palestine refugees says it's confident US President-elect Joe Biden will restore "humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people" cut by Trump administration.

Palestinian students sit in a classroom in a school run by UNRWA as the relief agency reopens schools partially amid the coronavirus crisis, in Gaza on November 3, 2020.
Palestinian students sit in a classroom in a school run by UNRWA as the relief agency reopens schools partially amid the coronavirus crisis, in Gaza on November 3, 2020. (Reuters)

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, hammered by US aid cuts, has said it is confident the President-elect Joe Biden's administration will restore support so that it's able to pay salaries to some 28,000 staffers, spread across Jordan, Lebanon, occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

The agency said on Monday it lacks the funds to pay full November salaries. 

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) "never recovered" from the total funding cut imposed by President Donald Trump in 2018, agency spokesperson Tamara Alrifai told AFP news agency.

On the possible impact of Biden's election win, Alrifai said UNRWA was "very optimistic the US will resume its support."

Asked if the agency had received specific commitments from the incoming administration, she said, "We have engaged very closely with the Biden campaign team and they do understand the uniqueness of UNRWA for the stability of the region."

Biden's 2020 campaign website said he would restore "humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people" but did not directly mention UNRWA.

Founded in 1949, UNRWA runs schools and provides health services as well as other humanitarian aid to an estimated 5.7 million Palestinians with refugee status.

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Donors face pressure due to Covid

Before Trump's cuts, the US had been providing UNRWA roughly a third of its core annual budget.

Alrifai said 2019 shortfalls were filled by additional support from several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait.

Both the European Union and individual European states, notably Germany, also helped close the gap, she said.

This year, "financial support waned," Alrifai added, noting that the coronavirus pandemic "didn't help," as key donors faced increased domestic financial pressures.

"The agency needs to raise the US $70 million by the end of the month if it is to pay full salaries for the months of November and December," a UNRWA statement said.

The funding shortfall affects 28,000 staffers, spread across several Arab states. The agency said most of the workers affected are refugees themselves.

"If additional funding is not pledged in the next weeks, UNRWA will be forced to defer partial salaries to all staff," said the agency’s commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini.

Only those whose work is covered by special emergency budgets could be spared, Alrifai said.

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Trump cuts funds

Israel had been critical of UNRWA before Trump's election, arguing its presence was no longer necessary decades after the conflict following Israel's creation in 1948 that created some 750,000 Palestinian refugees.

The Jewish state has also criticised rules under which Palestinians can hand down refugee status to their children.

After taking office in 2017, the staunchly pro-Israel Trump administration began echoing Israeli criticism of the agency before cutting funds the following year.

The agency's core annual budget for 2020 stood at $806 million, with an additional $300 million for emergency programmes, including the coronavirus response and Palestinians caught up in Syria's conflict.

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Source: AFP