In its essence, humanitarian work is about safeguarding human life and ensuring that people retain their dignity. It is uniquely dispiriting, therefore, when an aid worker is forced to say that their organisation is “gradually losing the ability to keep people alive”.
That was the frank admission made this week by John Whyte, a field programme support officer with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza. Mr Whyte spoke to The National from Rafah, where a sea of tents offers meagre shelter to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by Israel’s ground offensive. “They’ve come here specifically because this is a deconflicted area and they hope they are safe,” Mr Whyte said. “But the reality is that nowhere in Gaza is safe.”
Gaza is not safe for UNRWA staff either. By early January, 146 of its workers had been killed in the Israel-Gaza war, the biggest death toll suffered by any UN agency in a conflict. Nevertheless, it continues to work in unimaginable conditions, and is often the sole lifeline for Palestinian civilians facing a combined threat of bombardment, starvation, disease and homelessness.
It is the indispensability of UNRWA’s work that makes the recent decision by several major donor countries to suspend funding so dangerous. About $440 million worth of support has been frozen by some of the agency’s biggest donors, pending the result of a UN investigation into allegations that 12 UNRWA workers were involved in the attacks on Israel on October 7.
The accusations are serious. The brutality of the Hamas attacks, that cost the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis, including kibbutz residents and festivalgoers, mean that a suspected link between individual UNRWA workers and the October 7 events deserves to be investigated fully, fairly and transparently. No organisation is above scrutiny.
At this stage, however, the accusations remain just that – accusations. Although donor nations are right to avoid their resources going to militant groups or extremists, and charitable organisations have been exploited by extremists in various ways before, in UNRWA’s case, the risk of innocent Palestinians losing the last sliver of support they have must lead to a rethink.
The fact that some countries, such as Spain and Norway, have increased their support to UNRWA, coupled with many nations in the region continuing to endorse the agency by publicly engaging with it – Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently met UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini in Abu Dhabi – underscores the importance of an organisation that has long been the target of Israeli attempts to undermine it.
Question marks remain over the nature of the investigation into UNRWA. How will a “link” with Hamas be specified, given that for years the militant group has been the sole authority in Gaza, making it inevitable that civilians and humanitarians will cross its path? Does an UNRWA worker with a family member affiliated with Hamas mean that UN employee is now “linked” to the militants?
For its part, Hamas leaders and operatives must understand that in the same way Israel’s military hijacked civilian roles in the Jenin Hospital raid, inserting Hamas members into a humanitarian organisation such as UNRWA will inevitably subvert the work it is trying to do and leave it vulnerable to sanctions such as these funding cuts.
In an ideal world, there would be no need for an UNRWA – and arguably there would be no Hamas either – if the decades-long Israeli military occupation and blockade were ended, and Palestinians had a functioning state of their own. But the precarity faced by millions of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, means that UNRWA must keep operating. To pull funding while the “trial” is taking place is the wrong thing to do and could have grave consequences.