Gaza needs the lifeline of UNRWA

Western countries must reconsider their suspension of funding to the UN Refugee Agency

Displaced Palestinians receive bags of flour and other food aid at the UNRWA centre in Rafah, southern Gaza. AFP
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The US, UK and Germany are some of the biggest donors to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). The donor countries, along with Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Finland, Australia and Canada, are among those that have suspended funding to the agency since it was alleged that 12 of its employees may have been involved in the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

The agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states and the US is the largest individual donor to UNRWA, having pledged about one third of the agency’s $1.1 billion annual budget.

If the allegations against the 12 staff members prove to be true, then the seriousness of the matter is clear and those found guilty of wrongdoing should be dealt with accordingly. There can be no room for extremism in any aid organisation, least of all a UN-affiliated one that has kept many of the 1.9 million displaced people in Gaza and the Palestinian territories sheltered from Israeli bombardment, in addition to its support for millions of Palestinian refugees.

While a ceasefire would have saved many of the 26,400 lives lost over the past almost four months, pausing funding will make matters much worse

UNRWA has already terminated the services of nine employees and further investigations are under way. Neither Philippe Lazzarini, the agency's commissioner general, nor Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, have minced words on the gravity of the matter. Mr Guterres said: “Any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.”

While the damage done to the agency's reputation is significant, the actions of a few people do not, and should not, undermine the important and noble work of the organisation. UNRWA's 13,000 employees deliver health, education, social services and emergency assistance in the enclave across hundreds of buildings and complexes.

The agency's work is all the more notable given it has often faced a shortage of funds. Last August, for instance, UNRWA said a lack of funding had disrupted many of its services. In such a scenario, Mr Lazzarini is right in terming the suspension of funding as "collective punishment" to the Palestinians.

Such a punishing act should be reconsidered, particularly when other member states such as Norway and Ireland have kept valuable perspective on the matter. Affirming their continued support for UNRWA, the Norwegian delegation in Palestine made a discerning remark on social media, stating: “We need to distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for.” More countries should follow their example and clarity of thought.

Instead, the speed with which the nine countries have suspended funding stands in contrast with the failure of some of the same countries to call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in Gaza, despite repeated attempts by other members in the UN Security Council. While a ceasefire would have saved many of the 26,400 lives lost over the past almost four months, pausing funding will make matters much worse for the survivors. It will prevent food and medicine from reaching Palestinians in their most dire hour of need.

If the funding of the largest humanitarian actor in war-torn Gaza continues to be withheld, the consequences, including the threat of famine, will be acutely felt among its two million residents. Cutting off the funding is the snapping of a lifeline to innocent families caught in the crossfire of a war that is neither of their doing nor one that has an end in sight.

Palestinians desperately need the war to end. But irrespective of whether or not a ceasefire is called, it is imperative that the US and UK and other countries reassess their actions in light of the devastating effects that cutting off funding at this crucial point, when they most need it, will have on the plight of Palestinians. It is not a fate the people deserve, it is the opposite of it.

Published: January 29, 2024, 3:00 AM
Updated: January 30, 2024, 10:05 AM