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Gaza humanitarian aid 'at risk' as Western countries pause UN agency funding

Palestinians carry bags of flour they grabbed from an aid truck near an Israeli checkpoint, as Gaza residents face crisis levels of hunger amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza City on Saturday.  (Hossam Azam/Reuters - image credit)
Palestinians carry bags of flour they grabbed from an aid truck near an Israeli checkpoint, as Gaza residents face crisis levels of hunger amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza City on Saturday. (Hossam Azam/Reuters - image credit)

A pause in funding to a critical United Nations agency is raising concerns that humanitarian aid in Gaza is at further risk.

Canada and the U.S. paused funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) Friday after Israeli authorities claimed several of the agency's staff members were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel.

Seven other countries — the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland — have taken similar action.

The UNRWA is sheltering most of Gaza's population, with members employed as teachers, nurses, janitors and other social support workers looking after residents who have been displaced by Israeli airstrikes. The organization also plays a key logistical role with other aid agencies, identifying need and getting resources where they need to go.

"It's basically a municipal government. They take care of many, many things, from hospitals, medical care, schooling, sanitation, that sort of thing," said Michael Bociurkiw, a Canadian global affairs analyst and former UNICEF spokesperson for the West Bank and Gaza.

"It is inconceivable that any other aid agency on the planet could currently do what UNRWA is doing in Gaza," said Rex Brynen, chair of the Middle East Studies program at McGill University in Montreal. He has worked in war zones and acted as a consultant to the Canadian International Development Agency, the World Bank and United Nations agencies, among others.

"UNRWA is desperately short of resources right now. Gaza is desperately short of resources. And any funding paused by anyone puts the humanitarian relief efforts at risk."

He said Western leaders recognize how critical the agency is, but are in a place where they need to act on the "serious" allegations for political and operational reasons.

"But also the reality is that suspending funding for the single most important humanitarian aid agency — which everyone agrees has been doing an outstanding job of humanitarian assistance in a very difficult environment — is problematic," Brynen said.

Damaged houses lie in ruin in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Hamas, as seen from Israel Wednesday.
Damaged houses lie in ruin in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Hamas, as seen from Israel Wednesday.

Damaged houses lie in ruin in Gaza, as seen from Israel on Wednesday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

UNRWA pleads for funding

The UNRWA said Friday it fired the employees suspected of involvement and opened an investigation, vowing any employee "involved in acts of terror" would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.

Bociurkiw told CBC News on Sunday that it's difficult to monitor everyone in an organization that has tens of thousands of employees, but these allegations are so serious that the aid agency must do more to restore the faith of donor countries — such as release details of the investigation and call in an independent investigator, "maybe a former UN secretary general on that level to get to the bottom of this."

On Saturday, the agency's commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, urged countries to reinstate their funding "before UNRWA is forced to suspend its humanitarian response. "The lives of people in Gaza depend on this support and so does regional stability," he said in a statement.

Lazzarini said it is "shocking" to see funds suspended in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff after UNRWA terminated their contracts and tasked the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services to carry out an independent investigation.

"UNRWA is the primary humanitarian agency in Gaza, with over two million people depending on it for their sheer survival. Many are hungry as the clock is ticking towards a looming famine," he said in the statement.

The International Court of Justice ruled Friday that Israel must take immediate measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance in the Gaza Strip. Lazzarini said that can only be accomplished through co-operation with international partners — and with UNRWA, as the largest humanitarian actor.

Hussein al-Sheikh, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said cutting support to the agency brings major political and relief risks. "We call on countries that announced the cessation of their support for UNRWA to immediately reverse their decision," he said on X.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry criticized what it described as an Israeli campaign against UNRWA, and Hamas condemned the termination of employee contracts "based on information derived from the Zionist enemy."

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz encouraged more donor suspensions and said UNRWA should be replaced once fighting in the enclave dies down, accusing it of ties to Islamist militants in Gaza.

"In Gaza's rebuilding, @UNRWA must be replaced with agencies dedicated to genuine peace and development," he said on X.

Deputy UN spokesperson Farhan Haq, asked about Katz's remarks, said, "We are not responding to rhetoric. UNRWA overall had had a strong record, which we have repeatedly underscored."

Commissioner General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, addresses the assembly during the Global Refugee Forum, in Geneva, Switzerland in December. December 13, 2023.  via REUTERS
Commissioner General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, addresses the assembly during the Global Refugee Forum, in Geneva, Switzerland in December. December 13, 2023. via REUTERS

UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini addresses the assembly during the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva in December. (Jean-Guy Python/Reuters)

What could happen if funds run dry?

The agency has more than 30,000 employees overall, mostly Palestinian refugees, and is under strain with concurrent conflicts in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon.

UNRWA says at least 152 of its employees have been killed since Oct. 7, as of Jan. 22. The agency says one of its shelters in Khan Younis has been struck repeatedly by Israeli missiles, the latest hit on Jan. 24, which killed at least 13 people.

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

Brynen suggested the collapse of UNRWA could lead to hundreds of thousands of desperate Palestinians crashing the Egyptian border, which Egypt has said could end its peace treaty with Israel.

Western countries are likely hoping the UNRWA makes a significant move to quell their concerns so they can reinstate funding, he said.

"From the point of view of American policy, where they're already getting hammered for the massive civilian casualties in Gaza, they realize full well if it wasn't for UNRWA, this situation would be orders of magnitude worse — not only from a humanitarian point of view, but from, frankly, a political point of view as well," Brynen said.

Brynen said organizations such as the UN World Food Program, UNICEF, Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and potentially the World Health Organization could step up their relief response to mitigate the effects of a funding pause in the short term, but no agency has the staff or distribution network to replace UNRWA.

What is UNRWA?

Officially called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA was established in 1949 following the war surrounding Israel's creation.

The agency provides services for Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Gaza.

A Palestinian man holds a flour bag as others wait to receive theirs from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) during a temporary truce between Hamas and Israel, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 29, 2023. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
A Palestinian man holds a flour bag as others wait to receive theirs from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) during a temporary truce between Hamas and Israel, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 29, 2023. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian man holds a bag of flour as others wait to receive theirs from UNRWA during a temporary truce between Hamas and Israel, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on Nov. 29, 2023. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters )

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have accused the agency of fuelling anti-Israeli sentiment, which it denies.

UNRWA has provided aid and used its facilities to shelter people fleeing bombardment and a ground offensive launched by Israel in Gaza following the Oct. 7 attacks, during which about 1,200 people were killed and about 250 taken hostage.

Israel's offensive has laid waste to much of the densely populated Gaza Strip and killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to health officials in the territory.