Politicization Of Humanitarian Aid: The Case Of UNRWA

Western countries, namely the United States, Germany, Japan, France, Britain, Canada, Australia, etc., along with the European Union, suspended funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The decisions were triggered by a statement of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) alleging that the Shabak (Israeli internal intelligence service) found evidence of a dozen UNRWA employees being involved in the October 7th attacks as well as several UNRWA facilities being used for terrorist purposes. The statement was not followed by any detailed elaboration of the events, but all the relevant information was passed on to UNRWA directly, which led to the latter firing all the employees cited in the report.

“To protect the Agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay.  Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution”, said Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini commenting on the situation.

However, what happened next is beyond comprehension. Without awaiting a proper investigation, which has been called for by the UN governing bodies, the United States pulled the plug on its funding for UNRWA. The decision was not made upon thorough examination of Israel’s evidence, but rather based on UNRWA’s own decision to terminate the contracts of the cited individuals, which presumably “was proof that the information provided by the Israelis was compelling”. Several of the US’ Western allies followed soon, with countries of the Anglo-Saxon world (Britain, Canada, and Australia) being the first ones to do so. Germany, France, and the European Union joined later.

unrwa-in-gazaUNRWA functions on the basis of donations from UN member states. Over the history of the Agency, the United States has been the main donor, with its funding amounting to over 30% of the total UNRWA budget. In 2023, the US contributed more than $295 million to the Agency. Germany, the European Union, Japan and France are in the top 10 donor to UNRWA. The donations of all countries that paused funding combined amount to about 75% of all the donations, which means that these decisions are crushing for the Agency’s ability to support Palestinians in Gaza during some of the most devastating moments, as Israel’s offensive continues on.

UNRWA counts with around 13,000 employees in the Gaza Strip, being one of the largest employers in the region, and over 17,000 more in the West Bank. There are currently about 150 UNRWA shelters in Gaza housing around 1,2 million Palestinians that were displaced due to Israel’s military operation. The Agency is also the one responsible for coordinating the entrance of aid trucks in Gaza and distributing the aid among the Palestinian population.

According to data from the World Food Program, nearly 600,000 Palestinians in Gaza are facing catastrophic hunger and starvation, with more than 25,000 people being killed ever since the war began after the October 7th attacks. Gaza’s healthcare system is totally overwhelmed. According to the World Health Organization, there are only seven functional hospitals in the south of Gaza (for the 2 million Palestinians currently there) and they are all functioning at three times their capacity, while facing critical shortages of basic supplies and fuel.

In this context, cutting about 75% of the funding for the Agency means practically disabling its humanitarian abilities and condemning the population of Gaza to more hunger, misery, and destruction. This is understood by many of the governments around the world, including Ireland and Norway, which have been particularly vocal about their determination to continue supporting UNRWA’s work.

“UNRWA’s 13,000 employees provide life saving assistance to 2,3 million people and at incredible personal cost”, said Irish Foreign Minister on social media platform X, vowing Ireland’s commitment to continue funding the Agency’s work. Norway’s Representative Office to Palestine, in turn, said on X: “We need to distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for”, pledging the country’s support for the Palestinian people through UNRWA.

Israel’s approach to UNRWA is drastically different, as expressed by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz on X, who said that the Agency should be gone from Gaza after the war and called for the resignation of Commissioner-General Lazzarini.

All these allegations come after the International Court of Justice found that South Africa’s claim that Israel is committing genocide is plausible and ordered Israel to stop obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid to the region. The decision of the ICJ was completely overshadowed by the UNRWA scandal, which was likely to be one of the goals of the Israeli leadership. Despite the international community’s calls for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, the situation grows increasingly more devastating for the Palestinian population.

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