Palestinian refugee agency warns of instability amid crisis

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UN relief agency in Beirut on Wednesday. (AP)
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Updated 17 September 2020

Palestinian refugee agency warns of instability amid crisis

  • UNRWA now provides education, health care, food and other services to 5.8 million refugees and their descendants in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon

BEIRUT: The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, is experiencing a financial crisis that could force it to halt some services to an already impoverished population of more than 5 million people, the head of the agency said on Wednesday.

Philippe Lazzarini also warned in an interview with The Associated Press in Beirut that the spread of coronavirus, an economic meltdown in Lebanon and a huge deficit in UNRWA’s budget are deepening the hopelessness among Palestinian refugees, some of whom are trying to flee the Mediterranean nation on migrant boats.

UNRWA was established to aid the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948. It now provides education, health care, food and other services to 5.8 million refugees and their descendants in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

UNRWA’s financial crisis was sparked by the loss of all funding from the US, its largest donor, in 2018. The US gave $360 million to UNRWA in 2017, but only $60 million in 2018, and nothing last year or so far this year.

US President Donald Trump said in January 2018 that the Palestinians must return to peace talks with Israel to receive US aid money. He has since put forth a plan for resolving the conflict that heavily favors Israel and was rejected by the Palestinians.

“I do believe that ceasing our activity in a context where there is such a level of despair, such a level of hopelessness, can only fuel the feeling that the Palestinian refugees are abandoned by the international community,” said Lazzarini, who took office in March.

Lazzarini said supporting UNRWA “is one of the best investments in stability in the region at a time of extraordinary unpredictability and volatility.”

“We cannot let the situation get worse in a highly volatile region,” he said.

The Swiss humanitarian expert said UNRWA is facing an estimated shortfall of about $200 million between now and the end of 2020 if the agency wants to maintain all the services in its five fields of operations, including schools, health centers and social welfare.

Lazzarini said the coronavirus is having “a huge economic and financial impact also on our donor base.” He said most donor countries are in recession at a time when Palestinians need even more aid because of the pandemic and various lockdowns.

UNRWA has registered 6,876 confirmed cases among Palestinian refugees, most of them in the West Bank, where some 5,000 cases have been detected. Lebanon, which hosts tens of thousands of Palestinians, registered 430 cases in refugee camps.

“We have people being more and more in despair expecting UNRWA to deliver more services, at a time UNRWA is already experiencing financial crisis,” Lazzarini said. “It makes it much, much harder to mobilize the necessary resources.”

Lazzarini on Wednesday discussed conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon with President Michel Aoun and outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Aoun called for the return of Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in recent years from Syria’s civil war.

The UN official said he met with Palestinians in refugee camps during his visit to Lebanon who spoke about their hardships amid the country’s worst economic and financial crisis in decades. Lebanon’s local currency has lost 80 percent of its value, wiping away the life savings of Lebanese and Palestinians alike.

“There is a really deep sense of hopelessness and despair today in the Palestinian camps,” he said, adding that some families have been forced to cut back on food purchases.

“I believe that despair and hopelessness in a situation like this one can indeed lead to violence and to instability,” he said.


Lebanese spy chief tests positive for virus in US

Updated 21 October 2020

Lebanese spy chief tests positive for virus in US

  • Lebanon’s General Directorate of Public Security said that Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim is in ‘good health,’ but will postpone his return to Beirut following the PCR test

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s security chief has been forced to delay his return from an official visit to the US after testing positive for coronavirus following a series of White House meetings.

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, director-general of the Lebanese Public Security, met with US officials, including David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs; CIA director Gina Haspel; and national security adviser Robert O’Brien during his recent visit to Washington.

Hale, as well as several other employees from the State Department and other executive branch divisions, are now self-isolating for 14 days, US officials said.

Lebanon’s General Directorate of Public Security said that Ibrahim is in “good health,” but will postpone his return to Beirut following the PCR test.

The Lebanese intelligence chief also held talks with senior US security officials in Washington. He was scheduled to hold meetings in Paris before his return to Beirut.

In Lebanon, the number of coronavirus infections during October rose to more than 24,000, climbing past the September total of 22,000.

Since the outbreak began in February, more than 63,000 cases have been reported in the country, with 525 fatalities.

Firas Abyad, director of the Rafic Hariri University Hospital, said: “The situation is unacceptable. If we continue on this path, we will soon reach a point where the number of critical coronavirus cases outweighs the number of available intensive care beds. This will coincide with winter, when the demand for intensive care beds increases for pneumonia cases, for example.”

Abyad told Arab News: “One of the most difficult cases that doctors can face is the death of a mother after giving birth, due to the repercussions of her infection with the coronavirus, and this happened a few days ago in Tripoli.”

Abyad pointed to a “state of denial” among those infected with the virus, saying some “consider it as just a regular flu, and do not think about the consequences of the disease.”

He added: “We have 215 cases that need intensive care in Lebanon. We are not fully occupied yet, but we may be shortly.”

Almost 80 Lebanese towns have been placed in lockdown by the Ministry of Interior after recording high rates of infection.

The one-week lockdown decree issued on Tuesday included the southern Beirut neighborhoods of Ghobeiry, Haret Hreik, Burj Al-Brajneh, Tahwitet Al-Ghadeer and Al-Laylaki.

According to the Mount Lebanon Governorate, some suburbs “failed to abide by individual and collective preventive measures to limit the spread of active infection chains.”

The lockdown includes a ban on “social events, parties and gatherings of all kinds.”

Cafes, gaming lounges, amusement parks, sports clubs and public parks will also be closed under the restrictions.