Shortfall in funds threatens vital services in Palestine

Agency warns that if it does not overcome a US$103 million funding shortfall this year, it might have to cut its work.

ABU DHABI // For many years, the UAE has provided assistance to support Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, as well as in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. According to the UAE Foreign Aid Report, 2009 was no exception, with Emirati donors giving close to Dh1billion to the Palestinian Territories. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is responsible for Palestinian refugees, is among the organisations that has received recent support from the UAE. While stressing that the Israeli-imposed blockade on Gaza must be lifted altogether, Margot Ellis, the agency's deputy commissioner general, said the slight easing in restrictions had led to work starting recently on a UAE-funded housing project there.

"We as an organisation share a common vision with the UAE to support the human development and humanitarian needs of Palestine refugees," she said yesterday. However, Ms Ellis gave warning that if the agency did not overcome a US$103 million (Dh378m) funding shortfall this year, it might have to cut vital services. Last year, the agency faced a $54m shortfall that was bridged after additional contributions were made at the end of 2009 from countries including the UAE.

According to Ms Ellis, the operational deficit is based on what was already an "austerity budget" for 2010. "We are having to face critical choices," she said. "These are not optional services - it is about a child going to school and someone needing medical treatment." One area that has already seen cuts is the health sector, in which breast cancer screening for women over 50 years of age led to the detection of about 5,500 cases every year.

School textbooks also cannot be replaced, and assistance provided by UNRWA to families categorised as abjectly poor has had to be cut. "Because of the magnitude of the cuts, it will also hit our ability to pay our staff - teachers and health workers," Ms Ellis said. The impact of the funding shortfall would be felt not only in the besieged Gaza Strip, but "across the field," she said.