Islamic group OKs fund to support Palestinians via UN

A new endowment fund established by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation with the participation of the Islamic Development Bank will support UN efforts to help Palestinians, who have been cut off from US funding.

al-monitor Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Yousef al-Othaimeen speaks during a news conference after an extraordinary meeting of the OIC Executive Committee in Istanbul, Turkey, Aug. 1, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.

Mar 17, 2019

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has officially agreed to launch a fund that could in part ease the hardship caused by the United States slashing its funding to Palestinians.

The Jeddah-based OIC will establish a waqf (endowment) fund in support of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

“The waqf fund will serve as a financial deposit to the Palestinian refugees under the umbrella of the Islamic Development Bank, in a bid to raise funds from countries and institutions," Yousef al-Othaimeen, OIC secretary-general, announced in a March 4 statement. "The fund will also help strengthen the financial situation of UNRWA and support its activities in the humanitarian relief and development areas."

Othaimeen​ noted the final decision was made March 1 during an OIC Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Abu Dhabi, though talks had begun much earlier.

Established in 1949, UNRWA aims to serve 5.4 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. Its services include education, relief, health care, social services and infrastructure.

Ahmed Abu Houli, head of the PLO's Palestinian Refugee Affairs Department, told Al-Monitor, “The OIC decision to support UNRWA [was discussed at] the Conference of Supervisors on Palestinian Affairs in the Host Arab Countries," held Dec. 9 by the Arab League in Cairo. "Recommendations were made that the UN agency should continue to provide aid to Palestinian refugees.”

The fund will primarily aim to sustain UNRWA's services through money from OIC member states amounting to half a billion dollars, housed within the Islamic Development Bank, which will in turn invest it in projects in the Arab region. Profits will go to bolster UNRWA’s programs, Abu Houli explained.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said in a March 4 statement, “This timely decision by the leaders and members of the OIC is a unique sign of solidarity with Palestine refugees.”

According to an UNRWA report from Dec. 31, 2017, the United States was the largest donor that year, contributing $365 million. The EU donated $142.5 million; followed by Germany, $76.5 million; the UK, $67 million; Sweden, $62 million; and Saudi Arabia, $53 million. Combined with other countries' contributions, the donations totaled $1.12 billion.

In 2018, the UN agency experienced an unprecedented financial crisis as the United States announced in January that it would donate only $60 million. This move came in response to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision in December 2017 to reject US sponsorship of negotiations with Israel, in retaliation for the US decision to transfer its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, declaring the latter Israel's capital.

Consequently, as part of an austerity measure, UNRWA laid off about 1,000 staff members in the Gaza Strip in July 2018.

Things took another bad turn when Washington decided in August to completely suspend US funding, which accounted for about one-third of UNRWA’s total budget. The move put the future of the organization at stake, so in January of this year, UNRWA appealed to the international community for more funds.

Sami Mshasha, UNRWA spokesman in the Palestinian territories, told Al-Monitor the OIC fund to support UNRWA is "an unprecedented qualitative achievement at the level of the Arab and Islamic region.”

“UNRWA’s budget for this year stands at $1.2 billion," he said. "We are bending over backward to secure that budget. But 2019 seems promising, with the possibility of bridging the big gap caused by US funding cuts. Since the beginning of the year, we received donations from several parties, most importantly the EU with a grant worth $82 million and Japan with $23 million.”

Mshasha noted that yearly donations to UNRWA from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait amount to $200 million.

“It's difficult to predict how much the OIC fund will contribute to UNRWA’s budget, but it will surely be one of its most important sources of funding,” he added.

He explained that the waqf fund will primarily provide money for temporary employment projects for Palestinians and support the ongoing monthly food aid to refugees and humanitarian programs.

Issam Adwan, head of Hamas’ Refugee Affairs Department, told Al-Monitor, “It is true that the waqf fund would help bridge the gap in UNRWA’s budget, but there are fears that the OIC would take over the UN role in sponsoring the organization.”

He added, “We fear that as a consequence, the EU funding for the UN agency would gradually stop, which is what Israel is calling for. UNRWA could also turn from an international organization into a regional or Arab one, which means the issue of Palestinian refugees would become an Arab, rather than an international issue."

Adwan noted, “It's in the interest of the Palestinians that UNRWA remains under UN auspices, with non-Arab countries bearing the biggest part of its budget. This would keep the Palestinian refugee issue a central theme in the international community, instead of reducing it to an Arab problem.”

The PLO's Abu Houli, however, downplayed these fears, saying, “I believe the recent funds from the EU and Japan indicate that UNRWA remains central at the international level.”

He added, “The waqf fund is also strong proof that Arab and Islamic countries are committed to UN Resolution 194 of 1948, providing for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, after being forcibly evacuated in 1948."

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