UNRWA: Lifeline for Relief in Gaza

UNRWA Lifeline for Relief in Gaza
Building of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Lara Kajs | 20 February 2024 |

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – UNRWA – has been the lifeline for relief to those trapped in Gaza in the war between Israel and Hamas.

As this war deepens, the statistics are staggering. The death toll has claimed more than 29,000 civilians, many buried under the rubble. Nearly 74 percent of those killed are women and children. Some 65,000 Gazans have been injured in the hostilities between the combatants. The fighting has led to massive destruction of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, and homes. At least 1.9 million Gazans have been internally displaced; some 17,000 children are separated from families. More than 1 million children in Gaza need mental health and trauma care.

The ability of the humanitarian community to reach the people of Gaza with relief is utterly inadequate. Standing in Rafah, it looks like an apocalyptic state. Months ago, at the start of this war, it was determined that it would take 100 trucks a day, every day, for at least six months to get this humanitarian catastrophe under control. The situation has only worsened in 130+ days of war. Gaza is on the brink of collapse and the people are on the edge of famine. What is most needed is an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian relief to be delivered to Gaza. Compliance with international law from all combatants, the immediate release of all hostages, and an agreement for lasting peace, are imperative. However, recent allegations and actions taken against the one humanitarian agency supplying relief to the people of Gaza, have created catastrophic consequences.

Protection for Palestine Refugees

UNRWA was established by the General Assembly in 1949 after more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or forced to flee their homes in what is now Israel; what Palestinians call the Nakba. For 75 years, the agency’s goal has been to provide direct relief and aid for persons registered as Palestine refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the occupied West Bank, and Gaza. Four generations later some 5.9 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services across the region.

Palestinians are the only refugee group that is not assisted under the broader authority of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR (the Refugee Agency) mandate does not extend to the Occupied Palestine Territory, therefore UNHCR is only responsible for Palestine refugees, outside UNRWA’s area of operations.

UNRWA employs 30,000 people across 5 regions. The agency is a major employer where nearly half of adults remain unemployed. It runs schools for almost 300,000 children and provides emergency loans and housing assistance. More than 630,000 Gazans shelter in 150 buildings that were previously UNRWA-operated schools. Thousands seek medical help every day in agency-run clinics.

Simply put: UNRWA is the lifeline, not only for Gaza, but for the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, and it cannot be replaced, especially amid a humanitarian crisis that is the result of full-scale war.

Allegations of Terror

On 26 January, Israel presented the UN with information alleging that at least a dozen UNRWA staff members participated in the Hamas-led attacks on 7 October, which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians and took more than 200 hostages. Initially, there were no details or solid evidence to support the allegations. Then, Israeli officials began circulating a six-page summary of their claims to the media. The summary suggests that the allegations are based on smartphone intercepts and captured identity cards but there was little else offered as evidence.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened an immediate investigation by the Office of Internal Oversight Services – the highest investigative office of the UN – saying that any UN employee “involved in acts of terror will be held accountable including through criminal prosecution.” The accused employees were terminated. The UN further commissioned a comprehensive review of UNRWA, led by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna. That investigative team includes three Scandinavian research organizations, to ensure the principles of humanity, neutrality, and independence are upheld, and that allegations and serious breaches are responded to appropriately.

There is no debate that Israeli authorities have long campaigned against UNRWA and called for its closure. PM Benjamin Netanyahu further asserted that Israel’s objection to UNRWA extends beyond the allegations. The Prime Minister asserted that he blames the agency for the ICJ ruling against his country in which South Africa accused Israel of violating the Genocide Convention. In the ICJ ruling, the court ordered Israel to ensure the provision of urgently needed essential services and humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Support for UNRWA

There is a process for accountability and that process is in effect and ongoing. But while the investigation is being carried out, people need to survive, and UNRWA should continue to be funded so that it can continue its humanitarian work.

Yet despite clear evidence that the matter was being treated seriously, the US, along with the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, and France, among others, announced that they would freeze all payments to the agency. And while the focus on the allegations has overshadowed the impact that the cut to funding will have on the humanitarian situation for Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, one thing is certain… the people of Gaza need immediate help, and trying to replace UNRWA in the middle of a war and a humanitarian catastrophe is beyond ridiculous. Governments should immediately restore funding to UNRWA.

Let’s be clear: The allegations are serious and need to be fully investigated. The allegations may be true. It is also possible that Israel has more information than what it released thus far. And if the accusations are proven to be true, we expect those involved in the attack to be held accountable to the fullest extent.

But even if the allegations are true, that is no justification for suspending funding for the most important humanitarian agency during Israel’s military operation which has destroyed much of the infrastructure in Gaza and left its civilian population on the brink of famine.

It is unfortunate that under the current conditions, the UN Security Council has been unable to adopt a single decision demanding an end to the violence. The repeated veto of the US delegation has blocked the demand for a ceasefire and has allowed Israel to have a free pass to continue the collective punishment of Gaza.

It is even more disturbing that as the US and many top donors cut funding to UNRWA, preventing the agency from giving much-needed support to civilians; the same donors also increased and continue to provide weapons and military assistance to Israel, despite mounting evidence of violations that could amount to war crimes.

We urge Israel’s allies to suspend weapon sales and military assistance to Israel while its forces continue to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, including the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and other war crimes, with impunity.

The spiral of violence in Gaza will continue until the underlying cause of the conflict has been addressed and eliminated and the Palestine people can realize the right to create an independent State. Sustainable peace will only be met by a balanced approach rooted in international law. The path to peace rests on the two-state solution.

Photo Credit: UNRWA – United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East by David Scaduto. Licensed by CC by NC-SA 2.0