A pause in funding for a key United Nations agency raises fears that humanitarian aid to Gaza could be further threatened.
Canada and the United States suspended funding for the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) on Friday after Israeli authorities said several agency staff were involved in attacks carried out by the Hamas against Israel on October 7.
Seven other countries – the UK, Australia, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland – have taken similar measures.
UNRWA is home to most of Gaza’s population, with members employed as teachers, nurses, janitors and other social workers who care for residents displaced by Israeli airstrikes. The organization also plays a key logistical role with other humanitarian agencies, identifying needs and getting resources where they need to go.
“It’s basically a municipal government. They take care of many, many things, from hospitals, medical care, school, sanitation, those kinds of things,” said Michael Bociurkiw, Canadian global affairs analyst and former UNICEF spokesperson for the West Bank and Gaza.
“It is inconceivable that any other humanitarian agency on the planet could currently do what UNRWA is doing in Gaza,” said Rex Brynen, director of the Middle East studies program at McGill University in Montreal. He has worked in war zones and acted as a consultant to the Canadian International Development Agency, the World Bank and United Nations agencies, among others.
“UNRWA is desperately under-resourced right now. Gaza is desperately under-resourced. And any funding suspended by anyone puts humanitarian aid efforts at risk.”
He said Western leaders recognize how critical the agency is, but find themselves in a situation where they must act on “serious” allegations for political and operational reasons.
“But the reality is also that withholding funding from the largest humanitarian aid agency – which everyone agrees is doing remarkable humanitarian work in a very difficult environment – is problematic,” Brynen said .
UNRWA pleads for funding
UNRWA announced Friday that it had fired employees suspected of involvement and opened an investigation, promising that any employees “involved in acts of terrorism” would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.
Bociurkiw told CBC News on Sunday that it’s difficult to monitor everyone in an organization with tens of thousands of employees, but these allegations are so serious that the humanitarian agency must do more to restore countries’ trust donors – such as disclosing details of the investigation and bringing in an independent investigator, “perhaps a former UN secretary-general at that level, to get to the bottom of it”.
On Saturday, the agency’s commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini, urged countries to restore funding “before UNRWA is forced to suspend its humanitarian response.” “The lives of Gaza residents depend on this support, as does regional stability,” he said. A declaration.
UNRWA’s vital assistance is set to end following countries’ decisions to cut funding to the Agency.
Our humanitarian operation, on which 2 million people in Gaza depend as a lifeline, is collapsing. I am shocked that such decisions are made based on the alleged behavior of a…
Lazzarini said it was “shocking” to see funds suspended in response to allegations against a small group of employees after UNRWA terminated their contracts and charged the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services to conduct an independent investigation.
“UNRWA is the main humanitarian agency in Gaza, with more than two million people depending on it for simple survival. Many are hungry as the clock ticks towards imminent famine,” he said in the statement. .
The International Court of Justice ruled on Friday that Israel must take immediate steps to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Lazzarini said this can only be achieved through cooperation with international partners – and with UNRWA, as the largest humanitarian actor.
Hussein al-Sheikh, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said reducing support for the agency poses major political and humanitarian risks. “We call on countries that have announced the cessation of their support for UNRWA to immediately reverse their decision,” he said on X.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry criticized what it described as an Israeli campaign against UNRWA, and Hamas condemned the termination of employee contracts “based on information from the Zionist enemy.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz encouraged more donor suspensions and said UNRWA should be replaced once fighting in the enclave ends, accusing it of having links to Islamist militants in Gaza.
“In rebuilding Gaza, UNRWA must be replaced by agencies dedicated to genuine peace and development,” he said on X.
Farhan Haq, a deputy U.N. spokesperson, asked about Katz’s remarks, said: “We are not responding to rhetoric. UNRWA as a whole has had a strong record, which we have highlighted on several occasions. »
What could happen if funds ran out?
The agency has more than 30,000 employees in total, most of them Palestinian refugees, and is strained by the simultaneous conflicts in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon.
UNRWA says at least 152 of its employees have been killed since October 7 through January 22. The agency says one of its shelters in Khan Younis has been hit several times by Israeli missiles, most recently on January 24, which killed at least 13 people.
Lazzarini said 3,000 out of 13,000 core workers in Gaza continue to work, “giving their communities a lifeline that could collapse at any time due to lack of funding.”
Brynen suggested that the collapse of UNRWA could lead hundreds of thousands of desperate Palestinians to cross the Egyptian border, which Egypt fears could end its peace treaty with Israel.
Western countries are likely hoping that UNRWA will take a significant step to allay their concerns so that funding can be restored, he said.
“From a US policy perspective, where they are already criticized for the massive civilian casualties in Gaza, they realize very well that without UNRWA this situation would be much worse – not just from a point of view humanitarian, but frankly, from a political point of view as well,” Brynen said.
Brynen said organizations such as the United Nations World Food Program, UNICEF, the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and potentially the World Health Organization could step up their relief response to mitigate the effects of a short-term funding pause, but no agency has the necessary staff. or a distribution network to replace UNRWA.
What is UNRWA?
Officially called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA was established in 1949 following the war surrounding the creation of Israel.
The agency provides services to Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Gaza.
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have accused the agency of fueling anti-Israel sentiment, which it denies.
UNRWA provided aid and used its facilities to shelter people fleeing Israel’s bombing and ground offensive in Gaza following the October 7 attacks, in which around 1,200 people were killed and around 250 hostages taken.
The Israeli offensive has ravaged much of the densely populated Gaza Strip and killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to the territory’s health officials.