Gaza: why we must continue to support UNRWA

The United Nations has appealed to the countries that suspended funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the main humanitarian actor in Gaza, to reconsider their decisions. More than two million people in Gaza currently depend on lifesaving aid provided by the agency.

This suspension of aid was decided after 12 personnel of UNRWA, which has some 13,000 employees in Gaza, were accused by Israel of taking part in the 7 October attacks carried out by Hamas. The attacks claimed the lives of over 1,200 people.

Out of the 12 individuals implicated, nine were immediately identified and terminated by the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini. One is confirmed dead, and the identities of the remaining two are being clarified.

Investigation opened by the United Nations

An investigation by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the highest investigative body in the UN system, was immediately activated.

“Any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement on Sunday.

“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 penalised. The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met,” added the UN chief.

“It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement and political crises in the region,” said Mr. Lazzarini in a statement. He had previously announced on 17 January a full, independent review of the agency.

Two million people depend on UNRWA

UNRWA is the largest humanitarian agency working in the Gaza Strip.

More than two million people depend on lifesaving aid provided by UNRWA. Most do not have enough to eat and Gaza risks falling into famine. UNRWA manages shelters where over a million people have taken refuge and where the agency provides food and basic care.

In addition to food, water and medicines, UNRWA provides mattresses, blankets, hygiene kits, etc. It is also conducting vaccination campaigns against measles, mumps, rubella and other childhood diseases to protect children who are now living in extremely precarious health conditions.

“Some 3,000 core staff out of 13,000 in Gaza continue to report to work, giving their communities a lifeline which can collapse anytime now due to lack of funding,” said Mr. Lazzarini.

The head of UNRWA pointed out that the list of his staff is communicated to the authorities of the countries in which the agency works and that to date no reservations had been expressed, either in Israel or elsewhere.

UN urges donors to reconsider decision

The UN Secretary-General met with donors on 30 January to “listen to their concerns and to outline the steps we are taking to address them.” In his remarks to the opening of the Palestinian Rights Committee, Mr. Guterres underscored the importance of keeping UNRWA’s work going:

“UNRWA is the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza. I appeal to all Member States to guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s life-saving work.”

The United States was the first to announce the suspension of all additional aid to UNRWA, followed by several other countries, including Italy, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Finland, France, Germany and Iceland.

UNRWA, created in 1949, provides assistance, particularly in the education and health sectors, to 5.9 million people in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, where Palestinian refugees live.

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