UN Palestinian agency in urgent search for cash at global gathering

A Palestinian refugee flies a kite at a school belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the town of Sebline east of the southern Lebanese port of Saida, on March 12, 2018, during a protest against US aid cuts to the organization. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)
Updated 14 March 2018
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UN Palestinian agency in urgent search for cash at global gathering

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: Global powers will gather in Rome Thursday to discuss the future of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which faces an unprecedented crisis after the US froze hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) only has enough funds to keep schools and medical services open until May, its commissioner general Pierre Krahenbuhl told AFP.
US President Donald Trump’s administration has so far committed only $60 million to the agency this year, down from $360 million in 2017.
Trump continues to pressure the Palestinians to end their boycott of his administration sparked by his December recognition of the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
A major funding drive launched by UNRWA after the US freeze has raised little new money and diplomats are not optimistic about getting major pledges in the Italian capital.
UN officials want European countries to step in to fill part of the gap but are especially looking at Gulf Arab countries.
Fear is rife about the future of the organization that employs more than 20,000 people across the Middle East, the vast majority Palestinians.
UNRWA was established after the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948 when around 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled.
It offers vital support for these refugees and their descendants in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza, providing services for more than three million people.
This includes education for around half a million students, with nearly 30 percent of its funding coming from the United States.
In January, Trump tweeted “we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” accusing them of walking away from peace negotiations.
Two weeks later his administration confirmed it would hold back tens of millions in aid to UNRWA, saying it wanted the rest of the world to pay more.
Krahenbuhl labelled it the agency’s worst ever financial crisis and launched a major funding drive, turning the front page of its website into a call for donations.
Senior officials traveled globally to push for funds, with UNRWA aiming to find nearly half a billion dollars in new money.
But since the launch of the “Dignity is Priceless” campaign, the only new funding was a $900,000 grant from Kuwait, though European countries have advanced donations planned for the summer.
Private donations ran only into the “hundreds of thousands,” Krahenbuhl said, calling it “not groundbreaking.” UNRWA did not respond to multiple requests for a more specific figure.
Krahenbuhl downplayed concerns the world was not stepping up to fill the gap.
“It takes a lot of political dialogue for these things to move forward, especially in light of the size of the shortfall,” he told AFP.
“States were planning to contribute $20-25 million to UNRWA and suddenly see a shortfall that has increased by $300 million. It is quite natural you will not have one single state that will come forward and close that shortfall.”
But UNRWA employees face deep concerns about the sheer size of the gap.
Nicola Jones, of the ODI think tank that focuses on aid, said she expected UNRWA leaders to be “really concerned” by the slow pace of new funds.
“They really did try to have a high profile public awareness campaign about the cost of withdrawing funding and I think it is clearly extremely disappointing that it hasn’t been fruitful.”
The Rome conference, co-hosted by Sweden, Egypt and Jordan, will seek fresh momentum.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will attend, his office confirmed Tuesday, though the US had yet to confirm who would attend from their side.
“When any agency depends on a single donor it is a vulnerability,” said Sweden’s ambassador to the United Nations Olof Skoog.
“Sharing the responsibility more equally is therefore reasonable, but we expect the United States to stay committed.”
Hugh Lovatt, Israel/Palestine analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations think tank, said European countries were wary of being seen to bridge the funding gap for fear of vindicating Trump’s attempts to cut international aid funding.
Trump is due to announce his proposal for new Israel-Palestinian peace talks and Lovatt said all countries were waiting to see what vision it proposes for UNRWA.
He expected Europeans in Rome to make “concerted effort to corner the Americans and convince them to reconsider (their aid cuts).”


Facebook blocks more accounts over influence campaigns

Updated 1 min 33 sec ago
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Facebook blocks more accounts over influence campaigns

WASHINGTON: Facebook said Tuesday it shut down more than 2,600 fake accounts linked to Iran, Russia, Macedonia and Kosovo and aiming to influence political sentiment in various parts of the world.
It was the latest effort by the leading social network to shut down “inauthentic” accounts on Facebook and Instagram seeking to influence politics in the US and elsewhere.
Facebook said the accounts blocked in the four countries were not necessarily centrally coordinated but “used similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy for the company.
“We are constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Gleicher said in a blog post.
“In each case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.”
Gleicher said Facebook — which has made similar moves in recent months — was making progress in rooting out fake accounts but noted that “it’s an ongoing challenge because the people responsible are determined and well-funded. We constantly have to improve to stay ahead.”
In the latest action, Facebook said it removed 513 pages, groups and accounts tied to Iran and operating in Egypt, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Kashmir, Kazakhstan and various areas of the Middle East and North Africa.
Similar to other manipulation campaigns, the users posed as locals and “made-up media entities” and posted news stories about topics including sanctions against Iran, tensions between India and Pakistan, issues in the Middle East and the crisis in Venezuela.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our review linked these accounts to Iran,” Gleicher said.
Another 1,907 accounts linked to Russia were also blocked. These sought to influence sentiment related to Ukrainian news and politics, the situation in Crimea and corruption.
Facebook said 212 Facebook accounts originating in Macedonia and Kosovo were shut down for misrepresenting themselves as users in Australia, the United States and Britain and sharing content about politics, astrology, celebrities and beauty tips.
Earlier this month, Facebook said it blocked online manipulation efforts in Britain and Romania from users seeking to spread hate speech and divisive comments.
In January, Facebook took down hundreds of accounts from Iran that were part of a vast manipulation campaign operating in more than 20 countries.