UNRWA the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza, says UN chief

Antonio Guterres appeals to all member states to guarantee continuity of UNRWA’s life-saving work.

A Palestinian supporter holds a placard during a protest against the UNRWA funding cuts, in Beirut, Lebanon, on January 30. AP
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday described the UN Palestinian refugee agency as “the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza”.

Several countries have suspended funding to the agency over Israeli claims that 12 staff members took part in the October 7 attacks on the country.

“The humanitarian system in Gaza is collapsing,” Mr Guterres told a UN committee on Palestinian rights.

“Everyone in Gaza is hungry, while half a million grapple with catastrophic levels of food insecurity.”

He appealed to all member states to guarantee that the life-saving work of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) continues.

“Yesterday, I met with donors to listen to their concerns and to outline the steps we are taking to address them,” Mr Guterres said.

He underscored the importance of keeping the UNRWA’s “vital work going to meet the dire needs of civilians in Gaza, and to ensure its continuity of services to Palestine refugees in the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria".

“UNRWA is the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza,” Mr Guterres said.

The UN agency responded swiftly to allegations from Israel that 12 of its staff members took part in the October 7 Hamas-led assaults against Israel in which 1,200 people were killed and 240 abducted.

Since the start of Israel's ground offensive in Gaza, which has killed 27,000 people, the UN agency has provided aid and used its buildings to shelter Palestinians fleeing bombardment.

The US, UK, France, Netherlands, Germany and Japan are among the nations that have suspended their funding to the UN agency.

On Tuesday, Israel’s government spokesman Eylon Levy said the UNRWA “has been fundamentally compromised”.

Mr Levy accused it of “hiring terrorists on a massive scale, letting its infrastructure be used for Hamas military activity and relying on Hamas for aid distribution in the Gaza Strip".

Meanwhile, the UNRWA this week responded to a US Congressional letter asking for more information about allegations that the agency is failing to stop Hamas from stealing food aid and fuel.

The agency’s Washington representative William Deere said that it “does not make transfer of values to the de facto authorities or any Palestinian faction”.

Mr Deere said that the UNRWA is “immune from paying taxes, including indirect taxes, to a host government”.

He said it “takes measures to ensure that it has no financial ties with any individual or organisation on the UN Security Council Consolidated Sanctions List".

Mr Deere said the agency has implemented “emergency screening procedures” to guarantee that aid is delivered efficiently.

The UNRWA was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly.

Its mandate is to provide assistance and protection for about 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, including Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Updated: January 31, 2024, 7:32 PM