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UNRWA on the verge of collapse, chief warns

December 8, 2023 at 4:44 pm

United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini visits UNRWA building in Rafah, Gaza, makes statements to the press members on November 01, 2023 [Hani Alshaer/Anadolu Agency]

UNRWA “has become the primary platform for humanitarian assistance for over 2.2 million people in Gaza”, leaving it “on the verge of collapse”, Philippe Lazzarini has warned.

The agency, which was set up to support Palestine refugees until there is a political solution, is “just barely” operating, the UN body’s commissioner-general said in a letter posted on X today.

“If UNRWA collapses, humanitarian assistance in Gaza will also collapse,” he warned. “The humanitarian situation is now untenable.”

“This week, the Israeli military forces have instructed people to move further South, forcing Gaza’s population into an ever-shrinking space. Shelters are shockingly overcrowded, with high risk of epidemic illness.”

“In these overfull and unsanitary spaces, more than 700 people use a single toilet, women give birth (an average of 25 per day), and people nurse open wounds.”

The premise of UNRWA’s mandate – to provide services to Palestine Refugees until there is a political solution – is at great risk: without safe shelter and aid, civilians in Gaza risk death or will be forced to Egypt and beyond.

“Forced displacement out of Gaza may end prospects for the political solution that is intrinsic to UNRWA’s mandate, with grave risks for regional peace and security,” he added.

“Our staff take their children to work so they know they are safe or can die together.”

“I have never written such a letter – predicting the killing of my staff and collapse of the mandate I am expected to fulfill.”

He went on to call for “an end to the decimation of Gaza and its people.”

UNRWA was set-up in 1949 by a UN mandate to serve Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza Strip, West Bank and Jerusalem. It supports approximately 5.9 million Palestine refugees.

For years, Israel has been lobbying to have UNRWA closed down as it is the only UN agency to have a specific mandate to look after the basic needs of Palestinian refugees. If the agency no longer exists, argues Israel, then the refugee issue must no longer exist, and the legitimate right for Palestinian refugees to return to their land will be unnecessary. Israel has denied that right of return since the late 1940s, even though its own membership of the UN was made conditional upon Palestinian refugees being allowed to return to their homes and land.

UNRWA depends almost entirely on voluntary donations from UN member states, making it extremely vulnerable to pro-Israel lobby groups which are influential in various key capitals.

The agency faced severe financial difficulties while US President Donald Trump was in power as his administration stopped donations altogether in 2018. Though some of these funds were later reinstated they failed to fill the funding gap.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) then sharply reduced its funding of the body in 2020. Sami Mshasha said that the UAE donated $51.8 million to UNRWA in 2018 and again in 2019, but in 2020 it gave the agency just $1 million. This at a time when the UAE began normalising ties with the occupation authorities, signing the so-called ‘Abraham Accords’ in September of the same year.

The UK also more than halved its funds for UNRWA from £42.5 million ($57.2 million) in 2020 to £20.8 million ($28 million) in 2021. The UK was the third largest overall donor to UNRWA in 2020, but the cuts put it in the second tier of contributors.

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