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UN agency for Palestinian refugees loses half of its budget due to probe against workers

The UNRWA, which helps 5.9 million people and is the main humanitarian actor in Gaza, will only be able to operate until the end of February after 16 countries cut off their contributions due to the alleged involvement of 12 employees in the Hamas attack against Israel on October 7

Palestinian refugees
A UNRWA worker on a street in Jenin, on January 29.ZAIN JAAFAR (AFP)
Antonio Pita

In just 96 hours, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has lost 16 donor countries that contributed half of its budget. The trickle of announcements continued on Monday, with Austria and Japan — the sixth-largest contributor — due to claims of alleged involvement in the Hamas attack on October 7 by 12 local employees of the agency, which has fired nine and is clarifying the identity of two others (one more has died). The agency now estimates that it will only have funds to operate until the end of February, according to its communications director, Juliette Touma. These funds provide education (which takes up 59% of its budget), manage clinics, help buy food and clothing, grant microcredits and support single mothers for a total of 5.9 million Palestinian refugees. Some countries, such as Spain, Ireland and Norway, have said they will keep up their contributions, while the European Commission (the EU is the third-largest contributor) will wait for the result of the internal investigation by the United Nations and will carry out its own audit.

The economic blow affects refugees and the agency’s 30,000 workers in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but concern is focused on the Strip because the agency is the main humanitarian actor in an enclave that has become “uninhabitable” in the words of UN emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths. The war has changed the UNRWA’s daily activity: it coordinates the entry of humanitarian aid, its schools and medical centers have become shelters for a million people, it has lost about 150 employees due to Israeli airstrikes, and only 3,000 of its 13,000 workers in the area are still performing duties. Before the war, in 2022, there were 3.5 million medical appointments in Gaza at the agency’s 22 medical centers, and around 290,000 students were enrolled in its 278 schools, according to its latest annual report. Of the 2.3 million Gazans, 1.5 million are registered as refugees.

The latest plea has come from the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. This Sunday he asked countries to reverse their decision because “at this critical moment, cutting off funding will only hurt the people of Gaza who desperately need support.” That same day, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres issued a message of his own: “While I understand your concerns – I myself was horrified by these accusations – I firmly call on governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, ensure the continuity of UNRWA operations.”

The New York Times on Monday released information from the dossier that Israel has provided to the United States on the 12 employees. One is accused of kidnapping a woman, another of participating in a massacre in a kibbutz and a third of having given ammunition to the militiamen. In addition, one of the Israeli hostages in Gaza freed in November in an exchange for Palestinian prisoners has claimed that he was held in the home of a teacher from the agency.

The release of the report is allegedly part one of a three-phase plan that appears in a confidential document from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and was reported on national television channel 12 in late December. The second phase would consist of gradually stripping the UN agency of its powers and the third, giving these powers to the authority — as yet to be defined — that will govern Gaza after the conflict. A few days later, a political source cited by the newspaper Israel Hayom said that the country “will strive to find an alternative” to the UN agency when the war ends, because right now “it is the only group that knows” how to distribute food, water and medicine in the area.

Israel maintains a long-standing campaign against UNRWA, accusing it of helping to perpetuate the Middle East conflict, of colluding with the Hamas government in Gaza and of educating hate in its schools. Since 2015, a parliamentary lobby to “reform the UNRWA” has proposed stripping descendants of refugee status, so only a few hundred thousand elderly people would conserve their refugee status. Other critics accuse the agency of corruption and inefficiency.

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, announced on Monday the cancellation of a meeting scheduled for Wednesday between ministry personnel and the head of the agency, Philippe Lazzarini. “UNRWA employees participated in the massacre of October 7. Lazzarini should draw conclusions and resign. Supporters of terrorism are not welcome here,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. A day earlier he had already urged the UNRWA head to “please resign” in response to Lazzarini’s message calling the halt on funding over allegations against a small number of employees “immensely irresponsible.”

Vulnerable to controversies

The agency has had funding problems for years. Its structure makes it particularly vulnerable to controversy, such as in 2018, when the then president of the United States, Donald Trump, canceled contributions. Fully 94% of its annual budget, about $1.17 billion (€1.08 billion), depends on voluntary contributions from states who, in addition, acquire payment commitments that they are not obliged to fulfill. The rest of the money comes from the United Nations budget, contributions from other agencies, international organizations, NGOs and private donations.

Therefore, the loss of two heavyweights like the United States and Germany leaves a huge hole in the organization. The first gave $343.9 million in 2022 (the last year with definitive data). The second, $202 million. Between them they add up to 46% of the budget. The UNRWA has lost several more of its top 20 contributors, such as Japan ($30 million), Canada ($23 million), the Netherlands, the United Kingdom (both with $21 million), Italy ($18 million) and Australia ($13 million).

Flour distribution by UNRWA in Rafah, on January 29.
Flour distribution by UNRWA in Rafah, on January 29.IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA (REUTERS)

The UNRWA only deals with Palestinian refugees, so it is more exposed to the vicissitudes of the Middle East conflict. The rest of the world is handled by another United Nations agency, UNHCR, which was born at the same time and largely deals with providing protection and temporary help and, if circumstances require it, facilitating resettlement.

Al wikala (the agency, in Arabic), as the Palestinians usually call it, 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 the 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 a “just and lasting” resolution is achieved, which has never come to pass. It is the same Assembly that had declared a year earlier, in its Resolution 194, that “refugees who wish to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be allowed to do so as soon as possible.” Conceived as a temporary tool, it has to renew its mandate every three years. And, as descendants of those original refugees inherit refugee status, the initial figure of 700,000 has become, several generations later, 5.9 million.

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