UN officials and humanitarian aid agencies are calling on countries to reconsider their decision to suspend funding to the UN Palestinian Refugee Agency (UNRWA), which provides vital aid in the Gaza Strip.
More than a dozen countries have decided to suspend funding to the agency after Israel accused 12 agency workers of participating in the October 7 Hamas attacks.
What is UNRWA?
The word UNRWA is formed by the English acronym for United Nations Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East. Created in 1949 by mandate of the General Assembly following the creation of Israel, UNRWA assists more than 5.6 million Palestinians in the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, as well as refugees and their descendants living in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. UNRWA describes itself as “unique in its long-standing commitment to a group of refugees.”
With a dual role, the agency has humanitarian as well as development responsibilities. In practice, it provides government-type services in dozens of refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
UNRWA has 13,000 employees from Gaza. Among them, 125 work in health centers with rotating shifts.
To what extent is Gaza dependent on international aid?
The air, land and sea blockade that Israel has exercised against the Gaza Strip since 2007, as well as the access restrictions imposed by Egypt, limit the entry of food, fuel, medical supplies and people into Gaza. This has isolated the territory, making it very dependent on international humanitarian aid organizations to cover basic needs.
The UN has been in Gaza for decades. The Palestinian territories have received more than $50 billion in international development and humanitarian aid since 1993. It is one of the largest international interventions since World War II.
UNRWA has struggled to raise funds in recent years, a problem dramatically exacerbated by Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to cut US aid. The Biden Administration reversed the measure and the US is now the agency’s main donor.
It is not the only UN agency operating in the occupied territories. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is also present.
What has UNRWA been doing since the war broke out?
UNRWA has focused on converting the schools it manages in the enclave into shelters, where medical workers can provide health care and counselors and social workers provide psychological assistance, among other services. The agency has installed portable toilets and showers where needed and distributed bread and canned food.
The agency puts the number of its personnel who have died at 152 since the Hamas attacks against Israel on October 7, when Israel’s aerial bombardments on the Strip began. More than 140 UNRWA facilities have been damaged since the violence began.
Even before funding to UNRWA was suspended, the level of aid entering Gaza was already well below the pre-war daily average of 500 trucks.
In the last week, groups of relatives of hostages kidnapped by Hamas in Gaza blocked trucks carrying vital supplies from entering through the Kerem Shalom border crossing. The Israeli Army declared that the area around the crossing was considered a restricted military zone and protests there were prohibited.
Which countries have suspended funding to UNRWA?
The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan and Finland have joined the United States, Australia and Canada in the decision to suspend funding after UNRWA said it had launched an investigation into 12 employees who allegedly They participated in the Hamas attack on October 7 in which some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed.
With a contribution of $340 million in 2022, the United States is the largest donor to UNRWA. The State Department has said U.S. aid will be put on hold while it evaluates the allegations, originally issued by Israel. Together, countries that paused funding over the weekend provided about 60% of UNRWA’s 2022 budget.
This Monday, more States have joined the decision to pause contributions, such as Austria, Romania and the Baltic countries.
Spain, on the other hand, will maintain financing. This Monday, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, assured that “the relationship” with the UN agency will not be modified, but the Government will “follow very closely” the internal investigation. For its part, the European Commission, which is one of the main donors of aid to Gaza, has said that it will review it based on the investigation announced by the UN and the measures it adopts.
How is UNRWA responding to the allegations?
According to UN Secretary General António Guterres, nine of the 12 employees that Israel accuses of participating in the attacks have been fired immediately. One has been confirmed dead and two others are still being identified.
Guterres said that they will be held accountable, also through criminal means. “The abhorrent acts allegedly committed by these staff members must have consequences,” he said. “But the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many of them in the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized. “The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”
UNRWA spokesperson Juliette Touma has warned that the pause in funding may mean the agency would be forced to stop assisting more than two million Palestinians in Gaza at the end of February. The commissioner general of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, has assured that the lifeline that is maintaining Gaza can “fall apart at any moment.”
Translation by Francisco de Zárate.