UNRWA to plead for Europe to unlock funding

Agency head Philippe Lazzarini and UN Gaza co-ordinator Sigrid Kaag expected to meet EU foreign ministers in Brussels

Palestinians protest against frozen funding during a rally held outside the main UNRWA offices in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. AFP
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The head of the UN agency working for Palestinians UNRWA is expected in Brussels on Monday to attempt to persuade European countries to continue donating after some suspended financial transfers pending an investigation into Israeli claims against its staff.

Philippe Lazzarini is due to hold an unprecedented meeting with the EU’s 27 foreign ministers to brief them on the agency’s dire finances.

“We are doing everything possible so that hopefully our donors that suspended funding will reconsider; for other donors to increase funding; and for new donors to come in,” Juliette Touma, UNRWA director of communications, told The National. “It’s a combination of requests.”

UNRWA, which has struggled financially for years, has said it may have to shut down its operations in Gaza and across the region if funding does not resume. Suspended funds are equivalent to $440 million, about half of the agency’s operational costs. UNRWA provides essential services, such as schooling and health care, to millions of Palestinians.

The potential shutdown has raised fears of further instability in the region. “Any reduction in UNRWA services would increase pressure on the West Bank and Israel’s Arab neighbours at a time of deepening socio-economic crisis and an increasingly volatile security situation,” EU foreign affairs minister Josep Borrell said last week.

Some of UNWRA’s largest donors suspended financial transfers after Israel accused 12 of the agency’s staff of taking part in the October 7 Hamas attacks. They include EU countries Germany, France and Sweden, which collectively transferred close to $325 million last year, according to UNRWA figures.

To avert famine, you need UNRWA
Juliette Touma, UNRWA director of communications

“These are very serious allegations and the agency has taken them very seriously at different levels,” said Ms Touma. “We were very surprised by how quickly it all happened.

"But also, we didn’t think this would be done in the middle of a war when the situation in Gaza is so bad and when UNRWA is the largest humanitarian organisation working to respond to the needs of two million people.”

Mr Lazzarini, who has been to Gaza four times since the war began, will be meeting EU ministers alongside UN co-ordinator for Gaza, Sigrid Kaag. They are also expected to update ministers on the humanitarian situation in the enclave.

Mr Lazzarini was briefed alone by a representative of the Israeli government about its accusations on January 18, said Ms Touma. He fired the suspects – two were dead – and asked the UN office of internal oversight services to launch an investigation. UNRWA made the Israeli accusations public in a press statement on January 26, which triggered the suspensions.

A separate review into UNRWA’s neutrality, announced by Mr Lazzarini on January 17, will begin its work next week and will be headed by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna. The agency employees 13,000 staff in Gaza and 30,000 in the region.

“It will look into all sorts of accusations that have increased massively since the war began – breaches in neutrality when it comes to UNRWA staff, what they post on social media, the content of education programmes with books used at UNRWA schools, and the use of UNRWA facilities for military purposes,” said Ms Touma.

Some UNRWA donors, such as the EU, have stopped short of announcing a suspension in payments but said they were keeping an eye out for the results of the investigation. The bloc, scheduled to transfer €82 million ($88 million) to UNRWA this month, requested a separate audit which has yet to be confirmed.

A handful of donors, including Norway, Spain and Portugal, have instead publicly backed UNRWA and warned against suspending funding.

Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, who on Wednesday ordered the transfer of a planned 275 million crowns ($26 million) to UNRWA, previously told The National that replacing the agency “would take too much time”.

“If UNRWA stops working in a place like Gaza, more people are going to die and they’re going to die unnecessarily,” Ms Touma said. “We are on the verge of famine. Pockets of hunger have been identified in the north, including in Gaza city and northern Gaza. To avert famine, you need UNRWA.

“We have to see what happens in the coming weeks,” she added. “It’s a fluid situation that we have to assess as we go.”

Nearly 28,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory offensive since the October 7 attacks, and about 67,460 have been injured.

Israel has threatened to advance from Khan Younis, Gaza's main southern city, to Rafah, where the population has increased five-fold as people have fled bombardment further north in the strip.

Aid workers have warned of a bloodbath if Israel presses on into Rafah.

Updated: February 11, 2024, 8:24 AM