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Guterres asks countries to maintain aid to UN agency for Palestinian refugees

The world body fires nine employees of UNRWA, its main aid group in Gaza, after the latter were accused of participating in the Hamas attack on Oct 7. Spain says it will maintain funding while the US and a score of other countries are cutting it off

Israel-Hamas War
Workers from the United Nations Palestinian Refugee Agency (UNRWA) prepare medical aid for distribution at a warehouse in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza, on November 4, 2023.Europa Press/Contacto/Suliman El-Fara

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has become the latest collateral damage of the war in Gaza. Israel and some sectors of the Republican Party in the United States have been campaigning for its closure for years, considering that it contributes to perpetuating the Middle East conflict and teaching hatred in its schools. Now, the dismissal of nine of its 12 local employees (one is dead and the identity of the other two is being clarified) for alleged involvement in the Hamas attack on October 7 has generated a string of announcements by countries that are halting their funding, which would deprive the agency of most of its income at a critical time in Gaza, where the UNRWA manages shelters that house 40% of the population and continues to provide food and medical aid.

The UNRWA on Monday warned that it will not be able to help Gaza beyond February unless countries that halted their contributions renew them again. Around 20 of the world’s largest non-profits spoke out against the freeze on funds, including Save the Children and Cáritas.

The first nation to state that it will turn off the tap was its main donor last year, the United States, which made the announcement on Thursday. Since then, at least nine others have joined: Germany (the second-largest contributor), the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, Australia, Canada and Estonia. Spain on Monday announced that it would keep funding the agency because its work is “indispensable to alleviate […] the terrible humanitarian disaster,” said Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares. The minister said that Spain is closely following the investigation into Israel’s claims, but added that the accused are 12 individuals out of a total of around 30,000 employees who work for the agency.

The UNRWA budget depends mainly on voluntary contributions from countries, which is why the U.N. Secretary General, António Guterres, on Sunday asked member states to “at least guarantee the continuity of operations” of the agency while the accusations are being investigated. Guterres is even considering bringing to criminal trial — an unusual initiative — any worker whose involvement in “acts of terrorism” is proven: “Any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” he said in a statement.

“The abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences. But the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized,” he said. “The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”

UNRWA was created by the United Nations General Assembly in 1949, at the end of the first Arab-Israeli war and as a result of the Nakba, the flight or expulsion of two-thirds of Palestinians from the territory of the State of Israel that had just been created. Its mandate is to provide them with humanitarian assistance and protection until their situation is resolved. During the existence of this organization, the number of refugees has risen from 750,000 to almost six million, because descendants inherit the status.

The agency not only operates in Gaza, but also provides services to another 4.4 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The main area of activity is in education, to which it allocates more than half of its funds, but it also runs clinics, delivers food and clothing and grants microcredits. Almost all of its staff are local workers.

Fears that activity will be brought to a halt are centered above all now in Gaza, where thousands of Palestinians have begun their umpteenth forced displacement to flee the city of Khan Younis, where the Israeli army is conducting intense operations, towards Rafah, further south and on the border with Egypt. A million people are crowded into their shelters. Like almost all of Gaza, many of UNRWA’s thousands of employees are refugees and at least 150 have been killed in the Israeli offensive.

The head of the agency, Philippe Lazzarini, regretted the chain decision on Saturday, not only because of the implications for the population, but because the agency itself immediately fired the employees involved before even determining their guilt. “These decisions threaten our humanitarian work throughout the region, including and especially in Gaza. It is shocking to see a suspension of funds in reaction to the accusations against a small group of staff, especially given the immediate measures that UNRWA took by terminating their contracts and requesting an independent and transparent investigation,” he added before recalling that some 3,000 of the 13,000 core personnel in Gaza continue to work, despite the war. It is, in Lazzarini’s opinion, an “immensely irresponsible” decision.

The European Union, the third largest donor, has assured that it will “evaluate new measures” and is awaiting the result of “a complete and exhaustive investigation.” France, which contributed almost €60 million to UNRWA in 2023, did not have any payments planned for this first half of the year, so “it will decide when the time comes what measures to take,” given the “exceptional seriousness” of the accusations, indicated its Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement.

“Please resign”

Israel, which provided the United Nations with the information that led to the employees’ dismissal, has raised the tone. Its new Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, responded to a tweet by the head of UNRWA regretting the decision with a single sentence in English: “Mr. Lazzarini, please resign.” He had previously called for the agency’s leadership to be fired and “investigated in-depth about its knowledge” about “ties with Hamas” and — of particular relevance now that the future of post-war Gaza is being debated — its replacement by “agencies dedicated to true peace and development” for the reconstruction of the Strip.

The controversy has once again highlighted the gap between Western countries, mainly those who stand closest to Israel (those that have cut off financing), and the Arab-Muslim world around Gaza. The Arab League has issued a statement after a meeting of its permanent delegates in which it asks countries not to “burden UNRWA with the weight of unjust Israeli accusations against some” of its workers, warning of the “danger” it poses to several generations of Palestinian refugees and framing the measure in the “systematic Israeli campaign to harm” the agency.

The president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, accused Israel of wanting to “liquidate the issue of Palestinian refugees” with its “campaign” against UNRWA, and he accused the countries that will stop financing it of “disproportionately punishing millions of people.” The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, said he was “surprised” and wondered aloud if the action is “linked to the policy of collective punishment against civilians in Gaza.”

UNRWA has been struggling for years to maintain its sources of revenue, and has had to make cuts and layoffs. It experienced a similar crisis in 2018, when Donald Trump announced that the United States (also then the main donor) would only contribute $60 million that year, compared to $364 million in 2017. Half of the resulting gap was covered by four Gulf countries: United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauded Trump at the time for “starting to solve the problem” and called for the end of UNRWA, while his diplomacy called it an “illegitimate instrument aimed at the destruction of the State of Israel.”

With additional reporting by Miguel González.

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