Creating new perspectives since 2009

UNRWA's funding crisis and Gaza's humanitarian future

February 2, 2024 at 3:03 pm

Hours after the Israeli army withdrew from the region, residents are seen arriving amid destruction to check their homes and properties that they had to abandon in the northwest of Gaza City, Gaza on February 01, 2024 [Mahmoud Shalha – Anadolu Agency]

Since 7 October 2023, the relentless Israeli aggression on Gaza has displaced more than 85 per cent of the enclave’s population, with over 27,000 Palestinians killed, mostly women and children. This displacement has plunged civilians into a dire situation with shortages of food, water and medicines, made worse by the cold weather. In the words of Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, “famine was imminent” and now it is “inevitable”.

At a time when Gaza is going through an extreme humanitarian crisis, including famine, epidemics, and diseases, the abrupt funding cuts by Western liberal democracies to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), amid unproven allegations, contradict the humanitarian values they typically champion. This decision lies contrary to the basic principles of humanity and risks worsening the plight of innocent civilians in Gaza. To date, 18 countries, including the UK, the US and Canada, have suspended aid to UNRWA following Israel’s accusations that a handful of agency workers, of the 30,000 strong workforce in Gaza, were involved in the 7 October attack.

OPINION: What is UNRWA, and why is Israel trying to have it closed down?

For the past few months, Israel has aggressively adopted the ‘collective punishment’ of the entire community in Gaza through continued indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate deprivation of aid, which is prohibited in all circumstances under International humanitarian law. In October 2023, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called to ‘stop collective punishment’ of the entire population in Gaza. Referring to the aid suspension, Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA commissioner-general, said: “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.”

Aid suspension to UNRWA and its potential impact

UNRWA isn’t just an organisation; it’s a lifeline for the two million people, over half of whom are children in Gaza. Beyond flashy headlines and unproven allegations, UNRWA is a beacon of hope to war-struck people, providing aid, shelter, food and healthcare in all circumstances. The suspension of funding by donor states will impact life-saving assistance for millions of civilians who rely on UNRWA aid in Gaza. Moreover, the aid cuts significantly threaten its ability to maintain operations, potentially leading to a shutdown and creating an unimaginable humanitarian disaster.

An important factor as to why Israel is razing Gaza to the ground, including schools, hospitals and cultural and religious sites, followed by this aid cut, is to physically and psychologically break the civilians, potentially forcing displacement. Ashok Swain, professor and head of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, shared that the current Israeli regime seems to be creating unbearable conditions for Palestinians in Gaza, possibly pushing them to leave, and “a major obstacle in this plan is the presence and work of UN agencies, particularly the UNRWA, in providing humanitarian support to the people of Gaza.”

Additionally, in the ongoing conflict, nearly 136 UNRWA aid workers have been killed, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remarked, “136 of our colleagues in Gaza have been killed in 75 days —  something we have never seen in UN history,” besides the decision to suspended funding came on the same day as the ICJ’s ruling on potentially genocidal actions by Israel in Gaza. One cannot deny a political motive behind this move, as Israel has been lobbying against it for long. Being the only UN agency to have a specific mandate to provide assistance and protection for registered Palestine refugees, it stands as a threat. Thus, Israel aims to close UNRWA to eliminate the refugee issue, denying the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their land. Noga Arbell, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said in January that, “It will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA, this destruction must begin immediately.” So, all those countries stopping their aid to UNRWA align with a political agenda to undermine the agency and its efforts.

The war in Gaza, entering its fourth month, has caused enormous suffering – many families struggle to find flour, many only eat once a day, and some have even resorted to eating animal feed. As per the International Rescue Committee’s Bob Kitchen: “It is the most intense hunger crisis I have ever seen.” Moreover, Israel is using starvation as a ‘weapon of war,’ which is a war crime. As per the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, intentionally starving civilians by “depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including willfully impeding relief supplies” is a prohibited method of warfare.

READ: Palestine This Week: Is suspending funding to UNRWA collective punishment following ICJ rulings against Israel?

Geopolitical motives should not hinder the considerations of humanitarian aid. Penalising an entire aid agency and a starving, dying community is akin to a crime against humanity. Countries like Ireland and Norway expressed continued support for UNRWA, highlighting the distinction between individual actions and the agency’s vital role in Gaza.

Instead of cutting crucial funding for those in need, the global community should call for an immediate and lasting ceasefire and full humanitarian access. It is high time for the Western nations to shun their double standards, as saving human lives should come above anything else.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.