Gaza: Aid cuts to UN agency could be felt in weeks

Food is distributed at a shelter in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza.
Food is distributed at a shelter in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza.
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“While we’re addressing these concerns very actively, the humanitarian work needs to go on,” UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters at the Noon Briefing at Headquarters in New York on Tuesday.

“Civilians in Gaza who are suffering, need the continued support of everyone,” he said. “The critical humanitarian work the UN does not only in Gaza, in the region, needs to be supported. People’s lives depend on it.”

Several major donors have halted funds pending probes into Israel’s allegations late last week that 12 of UNRWA’s 30,000 staff members colluded with Hamas in the 7 October attacks that left 1,200 Israelis dead and 250 taken hostage. UNRWA launched an independent review of the agency’s humanitarian operations on 17 January.

Later today, the UN Secretary-General will meet with 35 Member States and the European Union to discuss UNRWA, brief them on the allegations and listen to their concerns, he said.

‘The UN does not work with Hamas’

Emphasizing that every year, UNRWA shares with Israel and the Palestinian Authority its staff member lists for Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, Mr. Dujarric said “no concerns” had been raised by either.

“UNRWA does not work with Hamas,” he said. “We have operational contact with de facto authorities like in other countries.”

The UN has yet to receive any reports directly from Israel about the allegations in writing, he said. Meanwhile, a thorough investigation is under way and the UN has fired several agency staff members implicated in the allegations. Media reports indicate that two of the suspects are dead.

Our aim is for a humanitarian ceasefire, for greater volume and quality of aid going in, and for a political solution that would lead us back to the two-State solution,” the UN Spokesperson said.

What’s on the line?

With over 26,000 dead and as the war spirals into ever deepening suffering for civilians in Gaza caught between the warring sides, concerns on the ground are rising.

Mr. Dujarric said the UN humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, reported that Israel issued a new evacuation order in western Gaza City, which had been home to 300,000 civilians before the crisis began, and that a trend since mid-January had seen heightened hostilities and excessive delays for aid convoys.

As for UNRWA, tasked with serving more than 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza, its work will be affected, he said.

“The financial situation will be very precarious after February,” Mr. Dujarric told reporters on Tuesday.

UNRWA operates primarily on donations, with its most recent records showing $1.1 billion in pledges for its programmes for Palestine refugees.

Food aid arrives at an UNRWA school-turned-shelter in Gaza.
Food aid arrives at an UNRWA school-turned-shelter in Gaza.

Looming funding cuts

Major donors, including the United States, Canada and Germany, announced they would suspend funding to UNRWA during the probes.

According to UNRWA records from 2022, the United States is the largest donor, having contributed almost $ 344 million, or about one third of the agency’s annual operating budget.

On the heels of media reports of Washington’s announcement to withhold about $1 million now and suspend funding until the investigation is completed, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield spoke to reporters outside the Security Council Chamber on Tuesday.

Welcoming the UN’s decision to conduct an investigation, she said the US Government has reached out to Israel for further information.

United States on Palestine - Security Council Media Stakeout | United Nations

‘There has to be accountability’: US

“There has to be accountability for anyone who participated in the attacks on October 7, but we also know that UNRWA plays a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians,” she said.

“We need to see fundamental changes before we can resume providing funding,” she continued, adding that she will raise her delegation’s concerns when meeting with the UN Secretary-General Tuesday afternoon.

We shouldn’t let this information undermine the efforts that UNRWA is making to provide lifesaving assistance,” she said, noting that the UN agency has “literally saved thousands of lives”.

‘Life or death’ consequences

Aid agencies have warned there is “simply not enough food”, with some raising alarms of looming famine, disease and displacement in the enclave.

Without funding, UNRWA cannot discharge its task of providing assistance, the agency’s former head of legal affairs, Johan Sufi, told UN News on Monday.

“By losing their funding, the agency is basically losing any means to operate,” said Mr. Sufi, who headed UNRWA’s legal affairs team from 2020 to 2022. “This means immediate consequences on the salary of its staff [and] on its ability to deliver humanitarian assistance to the population.”

The more serious, immediate risk is for the population: no access to water, to food, to medical assistance, to any humanitarian relief, as UNRWA is the main provider of aid, he warned.

Given that the ICJ has considered there is a serious risk of genocide in the Gaza Strip, he said one of the reasons is the worsening of conditions that could spell further physical destruction of part of Gaza’s population.

Referring to the new funding cuts, he said “this decision might have direct consequences.”

“We are literally talking about a life or death matter,” he said.

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