Will the West’s fund cut to UNRWA facilitate ethnic cleansing in Gaza?

Palestinian refugees carry food aid they received from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) on April 24, 2008 in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip.AFP file photo

UNRWA - until now - has always been considered a lifeline for the displaced Palestinians in Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. I use the words ‘until now’ because its top donors - the US and EU - have decided to halt funding ‘temporarily’. It may surprise many but the truth is that the US and the Western countries have been the leading fund providers for UNRWA over the years. So why has the funding cut been implemented? 

There has been recent allegations by the Israeli government against the UNRWA, in which the former accused the latter of having members who participated in the 7 October attack on Israel by Hamas. Thus far, twelve members are said to be involved in this action. This is indeed a serious accusation and the UN said that it had terminated nine out of those twelve individuals and would hold any of its employees involved in criminal activities to account.

Yet such measures did not appease the Israeli foreign minister Katz who called on the UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini to resign. It’s also notable to mention that Israel did not provide any evidence for these allegations. On the other hand, Lazzarini bemoaned the latest decisions from the Western states regarding UNRWA and insists that the fault of twelve individuals in an organization of 30,000 members should not be used as a justification for collective punishment on the whole institution.

Many members of UNRWA are desperately trying to provide humanitarian assistance to the besieged enclave - Gaza - where more than 1.9 million people (in a population of roughly 2 million) have been displaced and are now under dire needs of food, water, electricity and sanitation among other necessities. Many are already expressing fears of widespread famine in Gaza and the UN has previously accused Israel of using starvation as a weapon in its ongoing war with Hamas. Amid all this, the cut in funding for UNRWA could not have been more ill timed. What’s more interesting is that this report from Israel came only a few days after the ICJ warned Israel to ‘prevent genocide’ in Gaza.

The United States, Germany, European Union, Sweden, Norway and Japan are the top six donors of UNRWA. Among them, everyone except Norway has taken the decision to withhold further funds until the issue of the Israeli allegations has been thoroughly investigated and resolved
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UNRWA and Nakba

The Palestinian refugee crisis began in 1948 when native Palestinians were violently displaced from their territories by Israeli militias, an incident known as ‘Nakba’. Around 750,000 Palestinian Arabs were forced to leave their homes behind in several parts of the region that is now referred to as ‘Israel’. In fact, this was part of an ethnic cleansing process that happened during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the aftermath of which resulted in the formation of the state of Israel. Palestinians - on the other hand - were forced to move to smaller locations like the West Bank (which belonged to Jordan that time) and the Gaza strip. Some even fled to Lebanon and Syria over the next years.

The UNRWA - United Nations Relief and Works Agency - was formed in 1949, with the purpose of providing necessary provisions and other humanitarian services to the Palestinian refugees who got ethnically displaced. As per the data from UN official website, there are currently 58 refugee camps -  8 in Gaza, 19 in West Bank, 12 in Lebanon, 9 in Syria and 10 in Jordan. There are currently 5.9 million registered refugees by the UNRWA, with 706 schools set up overall. The number of health facilities right now is 140. The latest budget figures were obtained in 2022, with a total of almost 1.17 billion dollars pledged. With a war raging in Gaza and frequent Israeli settler attacks in the West Bank, many schools have been shut down since conducting classes have become impossible under the current circumstances. Instead there has been an urgent call for establishing more medical facilities in Gaza since a lot of the existing hospitals in Gaza were destroyed by Israeli bombs. However, with funding cut off by the Western donors, the setting up of further infrastructures will be difficult.

Bleak prospects, hard challenges

Yet with mounting civilian casualties, this is exactly what is required right now. The United States, Germany, European Union, Sweden, Norway and Japan are the top six donors of UNRWA. Among them, everyone except Norway has taken the decision to withhold further funds until the issue of the Israeli allegations has been thoroughly investigated and resolved. With Israel providing no evidence to back its claim, except publishing the names of the designated individuals, it seems as though the investigation will take a long time to be resolved.

 Moreover, there is also the issue of what might happen if the Israeli accusations are found to be true. Will the US and its Western allies stop funding UNRWA permanently, seeing as the organization would then be found of guilty of collaborating with what Israel calls ‘terrorists’? And by extension, Israel could then charge the entire UN body of being complicit in Oct 7 attacks or at least having turned a blind eye to the ‘bad elements’ in the organization since the UNRWA is part of UN.

If the major donors of the UNRWA halt their funds indefinitely then this would only exacerbate sufferings of the Palestinian people in this tragedy

We should all remember that Israel’s relation with the UN body has been very frosty ever since 7 October. The Israeli ambassador to the UN - Gilad Erdan - has repeatedly called on Antonio Guterres - the secretary general of the UN - to resign when Guterres made the remarks “October 7 did not happen in a vacuum.” But Guterres did denounce Hamas attacks on Israeli territory on 7 October , specifically stating that “grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas.”

However, Erdan launched a tirade of scathing attacks towards the secretary general, even going on to claim that “A secretary-general who does not understand that the murder of innocents can have no justification and no ‘background’ cannot be secretary general.” If this was really the case as Mr. Erdan suggests then why are there almost 27,000 killed civilians in Gaza, among whom more than 10,000 are children? Even in terms of military objectives, Israel has failed to accomplish its stated goal of ‘eradicating Hamas’ despite what it says to the media. The US itself mentioned that only 20-30 percent of Hamas fighters are killed and even that could be a far stretch since the US also had past inconsistencies in its claims over various issues and situations in the Middle East.

Possible initiatives

Guterres has decried the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza many times and called for a ceasefire. Several resolutions have been passed to no avail because the US vetoed most of them, stating that ‘the resolution fails to condemn Hamas’. Moreover, Guterres also spoke about how flow of aid into Gaza cannot be guaranteed even for a single month without the aid of US and its allies. Former UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness criticized the Arab countries for not investing more sums of money on the organization in order to facilitate transfer of aid to Gaza, which would ultimately help to reduce dependency on the Western powers.

Gunness argued that Arab countries make billions from oil revenues and a tiny fraction of these incomes is sufficient enough to mitigate UNRWA’s financial problems. As it stands, Saudi Arabia is the seveth largest donor of UNRWA while Turkey holds two spots below. With the West backing off, it might be up to Saudi and Turkey - along with Norway - to hold the reins now in this endeavor of helping the besieged Palestinian people. Egypt and Jordan - despite bieng Arab countries - have refused to take in any Palestinian refugees, nor do they provide any noteworthy funds for UNRWA.

Gunness referred to a certain remark by Israeli officials in a recent interview with Al Jazeera that Israel will be unable to win the war in Gaza unless UNRWA is disbanded. So are these allegations brought forth by Israel on UNRWA part of a larger scheme to orchestrate the banning of UNRWA? Is it to release some pressure they have been facing from the ICJ and most of the international community on charges of genocide? Or does it further reinstate the fears that many have expressed regarding Israel using starvation as a tool to subjugate the population in Gaza? Either way, one thing is certain, if the major donors of the UNRWA halt their funds indefinitely then this would only exacerbate sufferings of the Palestinian people in this tragedy. 

* Chowdhury Taoheed Al-Rabbi is a writer and student of BUP

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