The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), crucial for providing aid relief to two million people in Gaza, faces funding cuts following Israel’s accusations against some of its staff in connection with the 7 October Hamas attack.
The UN announced on Saturday, 27 January, has terminated nine of its 12 implicated employees and promised accountability. The allegations, however, have prompted an abrupt funding reduction from Western countries amid Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, worsened by nearly four months of conflict.
Nine countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Finland, have suspended their funding for the UNRWA.
The top ten donors to the UNRWA in 2022 were the US, Germany, the EU, Sweden, Norway, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and Turkey. EU member states alone made up 44.3 percent of the total pledges to UNRWA, contributing USD 520.3 million (EGP 16 billion).
Over 25 percent of households in Gaza are currently experiencing severe hunger, and there is a potential for famine unless there is a restoration of access to sufficient food, clean water, and essential health and sanitation services.
“It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement, and political crises in the region,” Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA chief, commented on Saturday on the defunding news.
Other countries have announced they plan to continue funding. Norway’s government on Saturday said, “the situation in Gaza is catastrophic, and UNRWA is the most important humanitarian organization there … International support for Palestine is needed now more than ever.”
Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf said the country has not “paused or withdrawn” funding for the UN’s relief agency in Gaza despite reports.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, pointed out that the language used in accusing UNRWA was highly charged in its connotations. He highlighted that similar language has not been utilized in discussing the deaths of over 26,000 Palestinians in Gaza, with the majority being children and women, since the war began on October 7.
The UNRWA and its mission
Established in 1949, the UNRWA was created to assist tens of thousands of Palestinians who were forcibly displaced from their homes during the establishment of the state of Israel.
The UNRWA’s current mission extends beyond providing shelters and distributing limited aid allowed by Israel in Gaza. It addresses the region’s persistent challenges by offering essential infrastructure and tools for daily life amid ongoing cycles of violence, siege, and impoverishment.
The agency manages medical and educational facilities, including teacher training centers and nearly 300 primary schools. It is also responsible for producing educational materials such as textbooks for young Palestinians. With a workforce of approximately 13,000 people in Gaza, UNRWA is the largest UN agency operating in the area and plays a crucial role in humanitarian initiatives.
Operating in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, where Palestinian refugees sought refuge after the Nakba, the organization defines Palestinian refugees as individuals whose normal residence was Palestine from June 1, 1946, to May 15, 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood due to the 1948 War.
The current number of such refugees is 5.9 million, largely consisting of descendants of the original refugees.
Israel rejects the return of displaced Palestinians, citing concerns about altering the country’s Jewish character. The UN General Assembly, representing all member states, has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate since its establishment. The agency has provided aid to four generations of Palestinian refugees
In the past four months, at least 152 UNRWA staffers have been killed in Gaza, according to the agency.