UNRWA provides education, health and relief services as well as housing and microfinance assistance to more than 5 mln refugees
By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 13 (Reuters) - The United Nations General Assembly on Friday overwhelmingly renewed the mandate for a U.N. agency supporting Palestinian refugees for another three years amid misconduct allegations and a cash shortfall triggered by a halt in U.S. funding.
The mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was extended until June 30, 2023, with 169 votes in favor and nine abstentions, while the United States and Israel voted against.
UNRWA, which was established in 1949, provides education, health and relief services as well as housing and microfinance assistance to more than 5 million registered refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The agency has faced budgetary difficulties since last year, when the United States - its biggest donor - halted its aid of $360 million per year. The United States and Israel have both accused UNRWA of mismanagement and anti-Israeli incitement.
In a statement published by the official Palestinian news agency WAFA, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas praised the vote as a victory for international law and the rights of the Palestinian refugees.
The Islamist group Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, hailed the U.N. vote as a defeat for the United States and a failure of its attempts to pressure U.N. member-states against UNRWA.
"We welcome the decision to renew the international mandate to UNRWA and we see it as another failure to hostile U.S. policies to the Palestinian rights," Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.
The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the vote.
Last month UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl resigned amid an investigation into misconduct allegations. Krahenbuhl has denied wrongdoing and said his agency was the victim of a political campaign designed to undermine it.
Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium suspended payments to UNRWA over the inquiry, deepening the budget crisis set off last year by the United States. UNRWA hopes the management shake-up will help pacify donors, said a source with knowledge of the organization's thinking.
The United States has advocated shifting the agency's relief services to refugee host countries. But UNRWA counters it provides a humanitarian lifeline and that it safeguards and advances Palestinians' rights under international law.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, praised the U.N. vote on Friday and said it was the United Nations' responsibility to combat what she called U.S. and Israeli attacks on Palestinian refugees.
"All attempts at trying to limit UNRWA's mandate or defund it or attack it have failed, and we hope that the international community will continue to come to the rescue," she said. (Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Nidal Al Mughrabi and Ali Sawafta;)
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