What is UNRWA and how will funding cut affect Palestinians in Gaza?

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees provides support to about two million Palestinians in Gaza

Why are western countries cutting funding to UNRWA, Gaza's main aid organisation?

Why are western countries cutting funding to UNRWA, Gaza's main aid organisation?
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The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, has been at the centre of a political storm after major countries announced they were suspending funding to the agency.

The US, UK, EU, France, Germany and Japan, among others, made the announcement after Israel alleged that UNRWA staff members took part in Hamas’s October 7 attack.

The agency said it is investigating the report and has dismissed nine of the 12 staff accused by Israel.

“Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement.

The suspension of funds is expected to have a major impact on nearly two million Palestinians who rely on UNRWA for support inside the Gaza Strip, according to the agency.

The agency is the largest humanitarian entity operating inside the Gaza Strip and has provided vital support for Palestinians during the humanitarian crisis caused by almost four months of war.

"If the funding is not resumed, UNRWA will not be able to continue its services and operations across the region, including in Gaza, beyond the end of February," a spokesperson for the agency said on Monday.

Here is everything you need to know about UNRWA, and how the suspension of funding will impact the Middle East.

What is UNRWA?

Established in 1949, UNRWA's main goal was to help refugees of the 1948 war. About 750,000 Palestinians were displaced during the war and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel.

The agency's official name is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. It aims to provide education, health and aid services to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

When the agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees.

Today, some 5.9 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services, according to the agency's website.

The agency counts 2.3 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, almost 1.5 million in Gaza, 871,000 in the West Bank, 568,000 in Syria, and 489,000 in Lebanon.

"UNRWA helps Palestine Refugees achieve their full potential in human development through quality services it provides in education, healthcare, relief and social services, protection, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance, and emergency assistance," said a statement by the agency.

What role does UNRWA play in Gaza?

Palestinians displaced from their homes in what is now Israel make up the majority of the crowded Gaza Strip's 2.3 million people.

The enclave is home to several sprawling refugee camps where people live in makeshift housing.

UNRWA runs shelters for refugees registered in Gaza and provides food and primary healthcare services.

The agency runs 183 schools for over 290,000 students in Gaza. It also provides critical services via health centres in Gaza.

At least 152 UNRWA staff members have been killed in Gaza since the war began, the agency says.

Where does UNRWA get its funding?

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions.

Many of these contributions come from states, as well as regional governments and the EU.

"Together, these sources represent close to 89.2 per cent of financial contributions to the agency," said the statement, referring to contributions from UN Member States including regional governments and the European Union.

The top government donors from 2022 were the US, Germany, EU, Sweden, Norway, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, according to UNRWA's website.

The US is UNRWA’s largest donor, contributing almost $344 million to the agency in 2022, reported the agency. The UK had committed $109 million for the 2023-24 year.

In 2022, the agency received $1.7 billion, with the largest contributions coming from the US, Germany, and the EU.

How will the budget cuts affect UNRWA's work?

The cuts – which by The National’s calculations add up to more than $700 million – amount to over half the agency’s annual budget.

UNRWA has warned that if it does not receive renewed funding in February, it will not be able to provide vital services.

The agency has warned repeatedly throughout the war that its services in Gaza are overwhelmed and underfunded.

UNRWA's operations in Lebanon

The agency is a vital lifeline for the approximately 250,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, around 45 per cent of whom live in the country’s 12 refugee camps.

The agency runs 64 schools that cater to around 40,000 students, as well as 27 primary healthcare centres.

According to UNRWA, the agency does not have the resources to fully cover the health needs of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Some 80 per cent of Palestinians are believed to be living below the national poverty line as of March 2023.

Palestinians in Lebanon face heavy restrictions on their ability to work and access government services. Because most do not have Lebanese citizenship, they cannot access benefits such as state education or healthcare.

They are also barred from employment in a number of desirable professions, including engineering and medicine.

With additional reporting by Jamie Prentis in Beirut.

Updated: January 30, 2024, 7:08 AM