GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 830, 1 February 2024

UNRWA relief fund shutdown exacerbates crises
Nuha Aamina

In the news
On 1 February, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) stated that it would be unable to fulfil the needs of the Palestinians through February if aid was cut off. 

The development came after on 26 January, UNRWA Commissioner-General, Phillippe Lazzarini, stated: "The Israeli authorities have provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the horrific attacks on Israel on October 7." He said that the agency would terminate the contracts of those staff members and "launch an investigation in order to establish truth without delay." He further added that "any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror" would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.

The same day, the spokesperson of the US Department of State, Matthew Miller, stated: "The Department of State has temporarily paused additional funding for UNRWA." He added that they would "review the allegations and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them." The European Union (EU) responded in a similar tone. The commission's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, stated that it would "assess further steps and draw lessons based on the result of the full and comprehensive investigation.”

On 27 January, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Antonio Tajani, stated: “The Italian government has suspended financing of the UNRWA after the atrocious attack on Israel on October 7.” 

Following the US, Australia, and Canada, other Western countries including the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland, joined in pausing funding to the aid agency. 

Meanwhile, Ireland and Norway expressed solidarity with the agency as its function is crucial in assisting the displaced Palestinians in Gaza. On 27 January, the Norwegian government stated: “We need to distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for.” The Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Micheal Martin, posted on X: “Ireland has no plans to suspend funding for UNRWA’s vital Gaza work.”

On 28 January, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres vowed to hold to account "any UN employee involved in acts of terror.” At the same time, he stated: "The tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized. The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met."

On the same day, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu stated that UNRWA is “perforated with Hamas” and that “in UNRWA schools they've been teaching the doctrines of extermination for Israel - the doctrines of terrorism, glorifying terrorism, lauding terrorism."

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh indicted Israel of a "premeditated political attack" on the agency.

Issues at large
First, a background to UNRWA. The UNRWA was established in 1949 under a UN resolution which sought to provide relief to 700,000 Palestinians displaced by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. The mission has carried out its operations for 70 years now. The UN General Assembly has continued to renew the UNRWA mandate, under which the agency is required to provide healthcare, housing and financial assistance to the refugee population in Gaza, West Bank, Syria and Lebanon. For instance, it operates schools, healthcare centres, and other vital services in Gaza. Currently, the UNRWA directly employs 30,000 Palestinians, who work to provide civic and humanitarian needs to 5.9 million descendants of those 700,000 refugees. 

Second, longstanding Israel-UNRWA tensions. According to UN Resolution 194, Palestinian refugees are entitled to education, medical assistance and services until they return to their land. However, Israel opposes this return and has resorted to lobbying Western countries to dismantle the UNRWA to prevent the return of these refugees. Israel claims that the UNRWA “perpetuates the refugee issue.” In 2017, Netanyahu called for the organization to be dismantled and merged with the main UN refugee agency. Israel has accused UNRWA of inciting anti-Israel sentiments. However, the agency claims that it does not teach hate nor are the funds being used to support Hamas and has questioned “the motivation of those who make such claims.”  

Third, the impending humanitarian crisis. The UNRWA, Gaza's largest humanitarian provider, has around 3,000 essential staff. According to the agency, nearly two million out of Gaza's 2.3 million residents rely on the agency's assistance. Human Rights Watch has said that war has rendered 85 per cent of Gaza's population homeless and susceptible to famine and illness, with the healthcare system on the verge of collapse. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 36 hospitals have stopped functioning, while fifteen are functioning at three times their capacity. The shelters have become cramped spaces conducive to the transmission of infectious diseases. Tens of thousands have resorted to makeshift tents and plastic sheet shelters, which barely protect them from such elements. Several Palestinians view UNRWA as their final safeguard against the catastrophe. 

In perspective
The halting of financial support to UNRWA signifies the end of international support in a region that has been ravaged by war. If Western countries continue to withhold their funding, it will be necessary for OPEC nations to step forward and take on the responsibility to bridge the gap. As two million people are dependent on the aid received from the organisation, without continued funding, the UNRWA will be unable to fulfil the humanitarian needs of the war-affected population. If the alleged staff were indeed involved in the attacks, the credibility of the UNRWA would be in jeopardy, potentially necessitating the cessation of its operations. While Israel-UNRWA tensions peak, Israel is likely to use the war as a facade to get rid of the organisation.

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