The UN’s agency for Palestine refugees has had “no indication” its schools in East Jerusalem will be closed, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said Tuesday.
The Jerusalem municipality has since October said it would seek to close or challenge UNRWA’s presence in East Jerusalem. But, attending a public event moderated by IRIN in Geneva, Krähenbühl said the Israeli government hadn’t notified the UN of any such plans.
“Our framework and the cooperation between UNRWA and Israel is regulated by an agreement that goes back to the ‘60s, and there has been no indication by the [Israeli] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of any change,” he said. “The position is clear.”
According to information published on UNRWA’s website, some 3,100 Palestinian students attend seven UNRWA schools in East Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians. The UN considers the territory to be occupied by Israel.
“At this stage it is clear all schools of UNRWA, all health centres, and other installations in East Jerusalem are open and operating,” Krähenbühl said. “We will of course follow how that develops.”
The UNRWA chief was in Geneva to appeal for $1.2 billion, the amount the agency says it needs to raise in 2019 to keep services for some 5.4 million registered Palestine refugees consistent with last year.
In 2018, the United States – until then UNRWA’s largest donor – cut $300 million in funding for the agency, which supports Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza with healthcare, schooling, food, and other aid.
Krähenbühl said 40 countries increased their donations to fill the gap left by the United States, but 2019 “will remain a rough year to get the same level [of funding] as last year”.
While the US cuts were a serious hit, 2018 is not the first time UNRWA – short for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – has been in dire financial straits.
Krähenbühl blamed UNRWA’s recurring financial crises on the fact that the agency, which began operations in 1950, was meant to be a short-term stop-gap until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved.
“One of the reasons why historically the funding was not stable or sustainable was that the very concept of UNRWA was not supposed to be sustainable or stable,” he said.
“The international community has a huge responsibility to shift the emphasis from what we have seen over the past 70 years – collective fascination with conflict management – and you get 70 years of UNRWA – when in fact one should be focusing on conflict resolution, which is of course much more difficult.”