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'Attacks on UNRWA are about squeezing the Palestinians': MEMO in Conversation with Chris Gunness

An award winning journalist, Gunness was UNRWA spokesman between 2007 and 2020 and a BBC correspondent for 25 years. He is founder and director of the Myanmar Accountability Project, a legal initiative which brings criminal prosecutions against war criminals in the Myanmar junta.

February 1, 2024 at 4:00 pm



In the heart of the Gaza Strip, home to over 2 million Palestinians struggling to survive under a 17-year blockade, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, has been a lifeline.

With more than half the population comprising children, the enclave is currently grappling with a dire humanitarian crisis, amid Israeli attacks since the onset of the war on 7 October.

Adding to the gravity of the situation, the largest contributor to UNRWA, the United States and several other nations have halted funding. This decision followed Israel’s accusation that some Agency staff was involved in the 7 October attack by Hamas, intensifying the challenges faced by the beleaguered region.

According to former UNRWA spokesman, Chris Gunness, the suspension is punitive, aimed to humiliate the poorest of the poor in Gaza, including mothers with babies, orphaned children, the wounded, the sick, the elderly and the disabled. The immediate repercussions involve the denial of essential supplies such as food, water and sanitary products.

“They won’t get food. They won’t get water, they won’t get blankets. They won’t get mattresses. The women won’t get sanitary products. It will just be a humiliation, and it’s the poorest of the poor who will be humiliated in this way and, to be very clear, this is punitive. It’s hard to see it in any other way. They need to reverse this decision as quickly as possible,” he said.

Israel has killed more than 27,000 people in the Gaza Strip since 7 October and injured over 66,100. The military onslaught has caused mass displacement and destruction and created conditions for famine.

UNRWA operates not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, therefore, the sustained suspension of funding jeopardises the Agency’s emergency programmes across the entire region.

In the Occupied West Bank, where humanitarian needs persist due to settler violence, Gunness explained that UNRWA’s ability to provide crucial services like education, primary health care, relief and social services are at risk.

UNRWA has taken steps to address the accusations, conducting an internal inquiry and terminating nine employees. Simultaneously, the United Nations’ Office of Internal Oversight Services is conducting a separate investigation. However, UN officials warn that operations may cease by the end of February if funding is not restored

In a statement on Wednesday, the heads of multiple UN organisations – including UNHCR – warned that there was no replacement for UNRWA and that suspending funds for the Agency would “have catastrophic consequences” for those in Gaza. “No other entity has the capacity to deliver the scale and breadth of assistance that 2.2 million people in Gaza urgently need,” they wrote.

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Gunness further highlighted that the decision to suspend funding is not only a humanitarian concern, but also bears significant political implications.

He said, “The British and American governments are amongst those who are saying most vociferously to their partners in the Middle East that we have to avoid a wider conflagration. But, if what you’re trying to do is promote stability, what better way to do that than through human development? Human development work of UNRWA providing education for the next generation is giving them a sense of hope.”

“The Palestinian and refugee communities in question are among the most marginalised and fragile in the entire region,” stressed Gunness. He described Sabra and Shatila, the refugee camps in Beirut’s southern suburbs and Al-Yarmouk Camp to the south of Damascus, which he considers even more dire than those in the Gaza refugee camps.

While drawing attention to the spike in Israeli accusations against the Agency during times of heightened conflict in Gaza, Gunness also suggests that the suspension at this particular time might be a calculated political attack on the Agency’s mandate, a move to force reforms without specifying what those reforms entail.

“When problems have arisen in donor relationships, they’ve generally said, ‘there’s a problem. Let’s work together to fix it,’ and been very loyal to the Agency but, this time round, they’ve been very vague, and said things like the Americans, about wanting to see this investigation into the 12 people who’ve been terminated and other reforms in UNRWA, but haven’t said what those reforms are. And unless they’re very specific, it’s gonna feel like a moving target for UNRWA, and that’s why there is the suspicion that what we’re seeing is a political attack on UNRWA’s mandate.”

Meanwhile, as Western countries suspend funding, neighbouring Arab countries have voiced opposition and called for the resumption of support.

However, Gunness contended that solving UNRWA’s financial challenges is well within the means of oil-rich Arab states, emphasising that their potential support could address the current funding shortfall without imposing a significant burden on their resources.

Citing the vast financial capacity of oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia, with oil revenues reaching 311 billion dollars in 2022, Gunness argues that such contributions would constitute a minimal fraction of their overall wealth.

He, therefore, urged Arab states to recognise the proximity of the issue and calls for a collective recognition that the issue is not just a European problem, but a shared responsibility for all involved.

Gunness insisted that viewing the matter as a European problem is an outdated perspective, and called for a re-evaluation of responsibilities and contributions in addressing the ongoing challenges faced by UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees.

He concluded, “Continued pressure must be brought to bear on the Western States to resume their aid. They should not be let off the hook. But I think it’s high time that the Arab States realise that this is their problem also, and they need to step up to the plate financially.”

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