In the war between Israel and Hamas, UN aid organization UNRWA is suddenly the subject of discussion. Employees of the organization, which claims to be impartial, may have been involved in the Hamas attack on October 7. The Netherlands and other Western countries have suspended financing.
What exactly is UNRWA?
UNRWA is a United Nations aid agency that focuses on Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. The organization was founded in 1949, a year after the Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe. That year, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or fled after the formation of the state of Israel.
Many Palestinians in Gaza are concerned about the funding that has now been suspended:
UNRWA provides humanitarian aid, education, health care and social services. This mainly happens in the Gaza Strip, but the organization also helps in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The organization also has activities in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In total, more than 30,000 people work for it, including many Palestinian refugees.
Why has UNRWA been discredited?
On Friday, UNRWA announced that it had received information from Israeli authorities that employees were involved in Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel on October 7. UNRWA said an investigation had begun into the employees “to uncover the truth.” It is unclear what the role of the employees would have been in the attacks.
UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini also said he had immediately terminated the contracts of the employees involved “so as not to jeopardize the delivery of humanitarian aid.” The investigation is still ongoing.
What are the reactions?
Shortly after Lazzarini’s statement, the US State Department announced it was temporarily suspending funding to UNRWA. The US, by far the largest donor, also expressed concern and emphasized the importance of an in-depth investigation.
In the day that followed, many more countries decided to suspend their funding to UNRWA. Including Germany (as the second largest donor), Australia, Canada, Finland, United Kingdom and Italy. The Netherlands also decided yesterday not to make any new payments for the time being.
Outgoing Minister Van Leeuwen for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation said: “The accusation is that the attack was committed on October 7 with UN money, with our money.”
UNRWA boss Lazzarini said yesterday that he was shocked that countries were suspending their funding. He calls on them to reconsider their decision.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also asked governments to continue supporting the UN aid agency.
“Tens of thousands of men and women working for UNRWA, who find themselves in the most dangerous situations every day, should not be punished by this,” Guterres said. “While I understand the concerns of governments, I strongly appeal to ensure the continuity of UNRWA operations.” Guterres assured that the employees involved will be held accountable.
Israel’s Foreign Minister has called on Lazzarini to resign. Israel has also called on more countries to stop their financing. Israelis have been critical of UNRWA for some time. Israel accuses the organization of anti-Israel incitement. Prime Minister Netanyahu previously tried to merge UNRWA with other UN aid agencies in order to limit the influence of the Palestinians in aid delivery.
What is the effect of suspending financing?
UNRWA depends on donors for almost 90 percent of its funding. The organization has a budget of more than 1 billion euros, mainly thanks to the US and EU countries. Now that funding has largely stopped, UNRWA chief Lazzarini has warned that the organization is in danger of having to stop.
An internal investigation into twelve employees is now underway. Nine of them have been discharged, one has died and two others have not yet been identified. It is not known how long the investigation will take.
The American refusal to give money in particular could become a major problem in the long term. In 2022, the Americans contributed more than 300 million euros to UNRWA.
How do the Palestinians themselves react?
Hamas and top Palestinian officials have criticized the countries’ decision to suspend their funding. They are calling for the decision to be reversed immediately, because it entails a great risk. Hamas also calls on countries “not to give in to Israel’s blackmail and threats.”
Leader Hussein Sheikh of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, also called on countries to reverse the decision to temporarily end the financing.
The post first appeared on nos.nl