How UNRWA's role in Gaza has collapsed amid devastating war

Only 3,000 of the agency's 13,000 staff members continue to report to work every day

A UNRWA lorry crosses into Egypt from Gaza, at the Rafah border crossing. Reuters
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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was struggling to continue operations in Gaza before the war with Israel broke out on October 7, killing more than 26,200 people in the besieged enclave.

Like the last devastating war in Gaza, the recent conflict has seen UN schools turn into overcrowded, under-equipped displacement centres. But the current violence, many times that which occurred in 2014, is unprecedented and has led to the near collapse of the organisation.

On January 17, UNRWA commissioner general Philippe Lazzarini described a visit to one of the schools-turned-shelters.

“The overcrowding was claustrophobic, and the filthiness was striking,” he said, adding that people were foregoing what little food and water they could find to avoid having to use unsanitary toilets.

People were unable to get access to food and medicine during the day either, he said – one of the tasks the UNRWA would carry out outside of war conditions.

In August 2023, the UNRWA said a lack of funding had disrupted many of its services in the enclave, delivered by 13,000 staff working across 300 buildings and complexes. Those sites offer education, health and mental care, relief and social services, cash and emergency assistance to Gaza's 1.7 million refugees.

About 300,000 children also attend UNRWA schools and vocational centres, which have been closed since the start of the October 7 war.

On October 11, the UN anticipated would need $104 million to continue its humanitarian response in Gaza over the next 90 days.

The UN now says more of its staff have been killed in the ongoing war than in any other previous conflict, with 152 dead while 141 UNRWA compounds have been damaged in the war.

One of the latest incidents took place on January 24, when a UNRWA training centre in the southern city of Khan Younis was hit by “direct fire” with 43,000 displaced people inside the centre and in its environs.

“The UNRWA shares the location of all its facilities, including shelters, directly with Israeli authorities,” it said in a statement without directly accusing Israel of carrying out the attack.

Only four out of the organisation's 22 healthcare centres remain operational.

In a blow to UNRWA operations, 12 UN staff were identified as possible suspects in the October 7 attacks carried out by Hamas during which it killed 1,200 people in Israel. Nine countries, including some of the UN's biggest donors, including the US, pulled out funding from the UNRWA.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the UNRWA is about to run out of money for its work in Gaza following the funding cuts.

“The UNRWA is the primary humanitarian agency in Gaza, with over two million people depending on it for their sheer survival,” Mr Lazzarini said on Saturday.

“The Agency runs shelters for over 1 million people and provides food and primary healthcare even at the height of the hostilities.”

He referred to Friday's ruling by the International Court of Justice that ordered Israel to take immediate action to enable the provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance in Gaza, as aid continues to pile up on the Egyptian border with Gaza.

About 3,000 of the UNRWA's 13,000 staff members continue to report to work, Mr Lazzarini said.

Updated: January 28, 2024, 12:30 PM