The UNRWA funding debate is a reminder of how the world fails Palestinians

The agency will never be a substitute for a Palestinian state, but withdrawing its funding is unjustifiable

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In a flurry of synchronised choreography, 19 major western donors withheld their contributions to UNRWA at a time when the Palestinians in Gaza are in the direst need for humanitarian assistance. In a statement the World Health Organisation stated unequivocally that withholding funds will have a catastrophic consequence. Sigrid Kaag, the UN Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Co-ordinator for Gaza, warned that there is no substitute for UNRWA for lifesaving work in Gaza. True, there is no substitute for UNRWA, but it is also true that UNRWA is no substitute for a Palestinian statehood.

For 74 long years UNRWA has been providing education, health care and social services to Palestinian refugees who initially numbered 700,000 in 1948 and now exceed 5.9 million. Wrongly, it seemed easier to provide aid to the Palestinian refugees than to resolve the conflict with Israel. The US, Germany and Sweden have suspended their financial support which constitute 50 per cent of the budget of UNRWA. Arab funding is still scarce. Western donors seem to be driven by humanitarian concerns and a sense of moral and ethical responsibility to address a refugee crisis of their own making.

Withdrawing financial support from UNRWA as the Palestinians suffer a catastrophe larger than that of 1948 is unjustifiable. Some, including the UN special rapporteur on UNRWA Francesca Albanese, have called it immoral. Indeed, one wonders about the timing of the move to withhold funds in light of the incrimination of Israel in the International Court of Justice. Many of the western donors withholding funds were openly critical of the ICJ.

The reasons given to withhold funds relate to UNRWA employees allegedly accused of complicity in the October 7 attack against Israel. Disciplinary action as well as the promise of a full investigation did not dissuade the countries withholding funds. Other accusations against UNRWA such as promoting antisemitism are not new. But there are dissenting voices. In the congressional hearing of the US House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on UNRWA Democratic Congressman Jason Crow had real concerns that defunding UNRWA would harm US national security. Defunding UNRWA will also have severe humanitarian implications not only for the Palestinian refugees in Gaza but also in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. More importantly, deteriorating living conditions and social degradation will have security implications for the host countries as well as mounting anti-American and anti-western sentiment. Let alone that deprivation and resentment are a recipe for extremism and radicalisation.

One wonders about the timing of the move to withhold funds in light of the incrimination of Israel in the International Court of Justice

It is no accident that Hamas flourished in the poorest of the Palestinian communities. It is puzzling to see the West inflicting pain and misery in the name of fighting antisemitism by incubating generations of radicalised Islamic extremists. Prioritising addressing antisemitism in the curricula of UNRWA schools as Palestinians are facing the biggest Nakba in their modern history and most schools are either destroyed or sheltering tens of thousands of forcibly displaced refugees seams naive at best. One wonders how much time and treasure it will take for both sides of the conflict to recover a semblance of normalcy. Depriving funding to UNRWA from International donors will further deepen the collective punishment of the Palestinians and fuel both hatred and violent extremism. Trading short-term considerations for long term goals has not been the forte of US foreign policy in the middle east. Cutting the funding of UNRWA is no exception. UNRWA may need rehabilitation and its educational mission reconsidered. But now is not the time.

The funding of UNRWA is a stark reminder of the failure to resolve the Palestinian question. UNRWA endures because of Western sponsorship. But sponsorship is no substitute for conflict resolution. The current crisis is more about an equitable resolution that addresses the legitimate aspirations and rights of the Palestinians and not about perpetuating the refugee status of millions. Also guilty of perpetuating the misery of Palestinian refugees is the indifference of some Arab and Islamic countries. It is intriguing that some Arab and Islamic countries contribute the least to UNRWA, although a few have stepped up in the last few months. Iran along with its allies and other members of the axis of resistance provide practically no humanitarian assistance, and none have offered to fill the gap in funding of UNRWA. Less talked about are the squalid conditions of Palestinian camps in Syria and Lebanon which place additional burdens on UNRWA as the sole provider of basic education and health needs. It is high time that more Arab countries step up to the plate.

Palestinian lives should not depend on the kindness of strangers only. Defunding UNRWA is neither ethical, moral, or politically warranted. This sentiment echoes wide across the Atlantic from dissenting voices in Congress to the highest levels of the EU. The human tragedy unfolding in Gaza should jump-start a political process that gives the Palestinians what is long overdue. The recent massacre in Gaza City of starving civilians is a direct consequence of brutal Israeli occupation as well as the systematic destruction and dismantling of UNRWA. The tragic events should prompt countries that withheld funds and denounced the massacre to promptly reverse their lamentable decision.

The Palestinians in Gaza and the Levant need all the humanitarian support they can get from UNRWA, from their host countries, and from their neighbours.

Published: March 01, 2024, 6:00 PM
Updated: March 04, 2024, 11:11 AM