Guterres calls for UNRWA to be saved to 'keep hope flowing'

Palestinian refugee agency hit hard by cuts from major donors as famine looms in Gaza Strip

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres at an UNRWA-run school, at Al Wehdat refugee camp in Amman. Reuters
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres defended the reputation of the world body's agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) after major funding cuts and Israel's continuing restrictions on Gaza aid.

UNRWA has been hit hard by a drop in funding, particularly from the US, after Israeli accusations that a minority of its staff co-operated with Hamas.

Mr Guterres's remarks in Jordan on Monday came as Israel faces new accusations from UN officials that aid convoys are being blocked from entering northern Gaza, which is on the brink of famine.

The growing chorus of anger comes amid Mr Guterres' efforts to raise momentum for a truce in the besieged enclave. He firmly defended UNRWA during a visit to a camp in Amman, saying the agency provided "one-of-a-kind services".

"We must strive to keep the one-of-a-kind services that UNRWA provides flowing because that keeps hope flowing," Mr Guterres told reporters at Al Wehdat refugee camp in eastern Amman, where he met pupils at schools operated by the agency, as well as a health centre.

Mr Guterres was speaking days after an independent review group responsible for evaluating the neutrality of UNRWA identified “critical areas” in the agency that needed to be addressed, but did not name those areas. The Gaza war has led to a funding freeze by major donors including Washington in response to alleged ties between Hamas and some UNRWA staff.

The cuts to finances threatens UNRWA services in the Levant, and most critically, in Gaza. Some donors have restarted funding to the agency.

Mr Guterres, who has faced Israeli criticism for his comments during the Gaza war, arrived in Amman from Egypt on a trip aimed at bolstering UN influence in the conflict. Jordan also has an interest in UNRWA remaining afloat because it operates in refugees camps in the kingdom and is a major employer.

UN funding freeze

UNRWA is in "extremely difficult circumstances", Mr Guterres said. He added that he "regrets" a spending bill passed last week by the US House of Representatives that solidifies Washington's pause on funding to UNRWA.

Mr Guterres also met Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi in Amman, and repeated calls he made on the Gaza-Egypt border for the war to stop.

"The fighting must end now, the hostages must be released now, and we must not lose sight of the big picture, a lasting end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only come through a two-state solution," he said after meeting.

More than a million Palestinians are trapped in Rafah under threat of a ground invasion of the area, which Israel says is needed to eliminate Hamas.

Mr Guterres previously said in Egypt that he saw growing international consensus that "any ground invasion of Rafah would be catastrophic humanitarian disaster".

"Here in Jordan, but also in Syria, in Lebanon – and, of course, in the occupied West Bank and Gaza – UNRWA is a lifeline of hope and dignity," he said. "And so, taking into account recent unacceptable events, an independent review is well under way to strengthen and improve UNRWA. I look forward to its recommendations."

The UN Security Council is expected to adopt a draft resolution that demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza for the first time since the war began on October 7.

Before Mr Guterres arrived in Amman on Sunday night, protesters marching to the Israeli embassy faced riot police and tear gas.

Israel's ambassador to the kingdom, Amir Weissbrod, left Jordan when the Gaza war erupted on October 7.

Aid convoys blocked

Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA commissioner general, said on Sunday that Israel's continued blocks on aid were intentional, after UN spokeswoman Juliette Toma said Israel denied entry to two aid convoys, without explaining why.

“Despite the tragedy unfolding under our watch, the Israeli authorities informed the UN that they will no longer approve any UNRWA food convoys to the north,” Mr Lazzarini said on X. “This is outrageous and makes it intentional to obstruct life-saving assistance during a man made famine.”

Cogat, the Israeli body that co-ordinates humanitarian aid to Gaza, said on Sunday that 103 lorries were inspected and approved to enter the enclave, with another 29 allowed to enter the north.

The UN said Gaza needed between 200 and 300 aid lorries to enter Gaza each day to avoid shortages. The world body has called for a surge in humanitarian supplies due to the threat of famine in the enclave.

UNRWA aid had not entered the northern part of Gaza since January 29, Ms Touma said. More than 500,000 Gazans in the area face famine and children have died of starvation.

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said “the decision to block food convoys to the north only pushes thousands closer to famine. It must be revoked”.

Israel has accused UNRWA employees of participating in the October 7 attack and called the agency “a front for Hamas”. Ms Touma said Israeli authorities on Sunday rejected a UN request to send a team to Al Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza, where Israeli troops have been carrying out a raid for about a week.

She said the UN team would aim “to evacuate people who are injured”.

The October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures. Gaza's Health Ministry said more than 32,200 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in the enclave since the war began.

Updated: April 09, 2024, 10:48 AM