The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), seen as a lifeline for two million people in the besieged enclave, has suffered funding cuts after several of its employees were accused by Israel of being involved in the Hamas attack of October 7.
The UN said Saturday it had fired nine of its 12 staff over the allegations and vowed to hold its employees accountable, but expressed shock at the rapid reduction of funding by several Western countries in the context of a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, which has been devastated by nearly four months of Israeli air and ground war.
“It would be extremely irresponsible to sanction an agency and an entire community it serves due to allegations of criminal acts against certain individuals, especially during times of war, displacement and political crises in the region,” Philippe said Lazzarini, head of UNRWA. a statement on Saturday.
The UN and Palestinian officials have requested continued funding for the agency’s “crucial work” since the claims were announced Friday.
Here’s what you need to know about the controversy.
What is UNRWA and who funds it?
The acronym stands for United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. It was established in 1949 to meet the needs of tens of thousands of Palestinians ethnically driven from their homes by Jewish militias in areas that are currently part of Israel.
The UN agency operates in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – the neighboring countries where Palestinian refugees have sought refuge after their violent expulsion known as Nakba or catastrophe.
According to its website, the UN agency supports the relief and human development of Palestinian refugees, working in a number of areas.
Examples of these areas are primary and vocational education, primary health care, relief and social services, infrastructure and camp improvement, microfinance and emergency response.
The agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, with the exception of a limited grant from the UN, which goes exclusively towards administrative costs, according to UNRWA.
UNRWA’s work could not be carried out without the sustained contributions of countries around the world and the European Union, which accounted for 94.9% of all contributions in 2022, the agency says.
In 2022, 44.3% of the agency’s total pledges of $1.17 billion came from EU member states, which contributed $520.3 million, including funds allocated by the institution via the European Commission.
The United States, Germany, the EU and Sweden were the largest individual donors during the year in question, contributing 61.4 percent of the agency’s overall funding.
Chris Gunness, a former UNRWA spokesman, said the U.N. agency had just weeks before it ran out of money for its crucial aid work to save Palestinian lives in Gaza. More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed since the Israeli offensive began on October 7.
“My message to the Arab world, especially the Gulf countries, is: where are you? Because they earn billions every day from oil revenues. A tiny fraction of these oil revenues would make UNRWA’s financial problems disappear overnight. This unacceptable gap inflicted by these Western countries would be closed very quickly,” Gunness told Al Jazeera.
“Some of the most desperate people in the Middle East face starvation today, and Arab states must do their part. »
What are Israel’s allegations against UNRWA personnel?
UNRWA said Friday that Israeli authorities had provided it with information on the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the October 7 attack.
Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, said he had immediately terminated the contracts of these staff members and immediately launched an investigation to establish the truth.
The US State Department said it was extremely troubled by the allegations, which it said concerned 12 UNRWA employees.
The UN agency has long been under attack from Israel. On Saturday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called on Lazzarini to leave his post.
“Mr. Lazzarini, please resign,” Katz wrote on social media platform X in response to the UNRWA chief’s warning about the consequences of funding cuts.
Gunness, the former UNRWA spokesperson, said there was a “coordinated political attack” on the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
“The Israelis have declared that they could not win the war on Gaza without the dissolution of UNRWA. So what clearer signal do you want? » he told Al Jazeera on Sunday.
How crucial is UNRWA and what have UN officials said?
UNRWA is the largest humanitarian actor in Gaza and some 3,000 of its core staff out of 13,000 in Gaza continue to work despite the war, according to the agency.
UNRWA Lazzarini said Two million people out of Gaza’s approximately 2.3 million inhabitants depend on the agency’s humanitarian operations.
“I am shocked that such decisions are being made based on the alleged behavior of a few individuals and that, as the war continues, needs are getting worse and famine threatens,” the UNRWA chief said on X.
“The Palestinians in Gaza did not need this additional collective punishment. It stains us all.
The UN official added that the agency runs shelters for more than a million people and provides food and primary health care even to the height of hostilities.
Separately, UN chief Antonio Guterres said the tens of thousands of people who work for UNRWA, many of whom are in some of the most dangerous situations, should not be penalized due to recent allegations.
“The urgent needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met,” he said.
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…
– Philippe Lazzarini (@UNLazzarini) January 27, 2024
Which countries have cut funding to UNRWA? Which ones didn’t?
The wave of funding suspensions began on Friday in the United States, just after the announcement of the investigation.
Canada, Australia, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland have joined Washington in the past two days.
Ireland and Norway, however, expressed their continued support for UNRWA, saying the agency is doing crucial work to help displaced Palestinians in desperate need of aid in Gaza.
“We must distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA represents,” the Norwegian government said in a statement, adding that the organization’s tens of thousands of employees in Gaza, in the West Bank and in the region play a “crucial role”. in the distribution of aid, saving lives and ensuring basic needs and rights.
Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin wrote on X: “Ireland has no intention of withholding funding for UNRWA’s vital work in Gaza. »