UN humanitarian chief says UNRWA 'needs to survive' amid myriad investigations

The National speaks with Martin Griffiths about hopes for funding for the UN agency as well as its future

Gaza war is worst I have seen, UN aid chief says

Gaza war is worst I have seen, UN aid chief says
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The UN's humanitarian aid chief stressed the importance of carrying out investigations into the UN agency for Palestinian refugees quickly so that it can continue services in the enclave, as Gazans have nowhere else to turn.

The UNRWA “needs to survive beyond February because all the investigations won't be complete”, Martin Griffiths told The National in an exclusive interview in New York.

The US, Germany, the UK, Australia, France and more than a dozen other countries have suspended funding to the UN agency amid Israeli claims that 12 staff members took part in the October 7 Hamas attacks that sparked the war in Gaza.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UNRWA, warned on Thursday that the agency would have to halt operations by the end of February if funding is not restored.

But Mr Griffiths struck an optimistic tone.

“I think we will get the funding,” he said. “I'm not prepared to admit that we wouldn't.”

Donors are demanding a swift investigation before resuming funds and the UN has vowed to investigate the “alleged crimes so that we can see if the evidence given is in fact accurate” he explained.

“UNRWA informs Israel and the Palestinian Authority every year of its staff, their names," Mr Griffiths said.

"There were no complaints until this particularly awful incident happened."

The Welsh veteran diplomat attended UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres's closed-door meeting with 36 donor nations on Tuesday evening.

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“The representative of the UAE was very strong and clear about the value of UNRWA,” Mr Griffiths said.

“The quicker we do our study of these alleged crimes, the sooner we can get money back from UNRWA’s normal donors, but meanwhile we'll need to get an interim funding solution from others.”

At least 142 UNRWA staff members have been killed in the conflict, many alongside family members. About 27,000 people have been killed in Gaza so far.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the UNRWA of being “totally infiltrated with Hamas” and called for it to be replaced with other UN aid agencies.

But Mr Griffiths was doubtful other agencies could replace it.

It is not actually a practical matter for other agencies to take over the functions of the UNRWA, he said, even if that was the right thing.

Having worked in the humanitarian field for more than five decades, Mr Griffiths said the Gaza crisis was the worst he had seen and “it's for one very specific reason” – four months into the war, “Gazans are trapped … as has been the case for many years”.

“We now have in the south around Rafah an area traditionally for about 200,000 to 250,000 people,” he said.

Gazans worry about suspension of UNRWA funding – video

Gazans worry about suspension of UNRWA funding

Gazans worry about suspension of UNRWA funding

“We have something like six times that number, bunched into that area, as the wall comes down towards them from Khan Younis, as it moves south.

“Where are they going to go? It's not as if the Palestinians want a second Nakba.”

Mr Griffiths insisted on a right of return for Palestinians.

Far-right Israeli ministers have, in recent weeks, floated the idea of pushing Gazans out of the enclave in an effort to flush out Hamas.

“We've heard from Egypt that it's a complete red line for them to prevent anyone climbing over the fence into Egypt,” he said.

“But I don't see how easy that is to avoid when you see the compression.”

With much of the enclave reduced to rubble, “a horizon of hope for people is essential to their willingness to survive and to work to survive, and to beat off diseases and the tribulations of war. And in Gaza that’s really difficult because people don't know where to turn”, Mr Griffiths said.

The humanitarian chief briefly discussed how the crisis in Gaza is casting other conflicts into the shadows.

“I imagine we will find that the suffering in Sudan is as great as maybe in some parts of Gaza and other parts of the world,” he said.

“The suffering in Sudan in the absence of international attention and international support for the people of Sudan is something which we should be deeply ashamed of.”

After a 20-year career in conflict mediation, he does not think the UN is in a position to run a postwar Gaza.

Instead, he favours an Arab-led initiative aimed at reinstating Palestinian governance over the territories.

“I think what's right and proper, and very important and very thoughtful is the Arab plan, which has the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan working together to develop a plan for how to govern the Palestinian state, depending on a two-state solution,” he said.

“Giving the Palestinian Authority – with some reform – the authority to govern all Palestinian areas, that's what the UN would want, it's consistent with all our resolutions.”

He considers a two-state solution feasible under current conditions where "former enemies as neighbours is very possible".

"It's hard. You need to have very strong security guarantees, you need to have a real political will for reconciliation, and for perhaps not for forgiving, but for moving on,” he said.

"As to who should be involved in it?" he pondered. 'I think that's a question for the Palestinians to answer".

Updated: February 02, 2024, 5:33 PM