The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), considered a lifeline for two million people in the besieged enclave, has suffered funding cuts after several of its staff were accused by Israel of involvement in the October 7 Hamas attack.
The UN on Saturday said that it had terminated nine out of 12 staff over the allegations and vowed to hold its employees accountable, but expressed its shock at the swift funding cut by several Western countries amid a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, which has been devastated by nearly four months of Israel’s aerial and ground war.
“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,” Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA chief, said in a statement on Saturday.
The UN and Palestinian officials have called for continued funding for the agency’s “crucial work” since the announcement of the claims on Friday.
Here is what you need to know about the controversy.
What is UNRWA and who funds it?
The acronym stands for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. It was established in 1949 to cater to tens of thousands of Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homes by Jewish militias from areas that currently form part of Israel.
The UN agency operates in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – the neighbouring countries where the Palestinian refugees took shelter after their violent expulsion known as the Nakba or catastrophe.
According to its website, the UN agency supports the relief and human development of Palestinian refugees, working in a number of areas.
Examples of these fields are primary and vocational education, primary healthcare, relief and social services, infrastructure and camp improvement, microfinance, and emergency response.
The agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions apart from a limited subsidy from the UN, which is used exclusively for administrative costs, according to UNRWA.
The work of UNRWA could not be carried out without sustained contributions from countries worldwide and the European Union, which represented 94.9 percent of all contributions in 2022, the agency says.
In 2022, 44.3 percent of the agency’s total pledges, or $1.17bn, came from the EU member states, who contributed $520.3m, including funds allocated by the institution via the European Commission.
The United States, Germany, the EU and Sweden were the largest individual donors in the year in question, contributing 61.4 percent of the agency’s overall funding in total.
Chris Gunness, a former UNRWA spokesman, said the UN agency has weeks only before it runs out of money for its crucial aid work to save Palestinian lives in Gaza. More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched its offensive on October 7.
“My message to the Arab world, particularly to the Gulf, is where are you? Because they’re making billions each day on oil revenues. A tiny fraction of those oil revenues would see UNRWA’s financial problems disappear overnight. This unconscionable gap inflicted by these Western countries would be filled very quickly,” Gunness told Al Jazeera.
“Some of the most desperate people in the Middle East are now facing starvation, they’re facing famine, and the Arab states need to step up to the plate.”
What are Israel’s allegations against UNRWA staff?
The UNRWA said on Friday that the Israeli authorities have provided the agency with information about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the October 7 attack.
Lazzarini, the head of the UNRWA, said that he immediately terminated the contracts of these staff members and launched an investigation to establish the truth without delay.
The US Department of State said it was extremely troubled by the allegations, which it said pertained to 12 UNRWA employees.
The UN agency has long been under attack from Israel. On Saturday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called on Lazzarini to quit his post.
“Mr Lazzarini please resign,” Katz wrote on social media platform X in response to the UNRWA chief’s warning over the consequences of funding cuts.
Gunness, the former UNRWA spokesman, said there is a “coordinated political attack” on the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees.
“The Israelis have said they cannot win the war on Gaza unless UNRWA is disbanded. So what clearer signal do you want?” he told Al Jazeera on Sunday.
How crucial is UNRWA and what did UN officials say?
The UNRWA is the largest humanitarian actor in Gaza and some 3,000 of its core staff out of 13,000 in Gaza continue to report to work despite the war, according to the agency.
UNRWA’s Lazzarini said two million people out of about 2.3 million population in Gaza depend on the agency’s humanitarian operation.
“I am shocked such decisions are taken based on alleged behavior of a few individuals and as the war continues, needs are deepening & famine looms,” the UNRWA chief posted on X.
“Palestinians in Gaza did not need this additional collective punishment. This stains all of us.”
The UN official added that the agency runs shelters for over one million people and provides food and primary healthcare even at the height of the hostilities.
Meanwhile, UN chief Antonio Guterres said that the tens of thousands of people who work for the UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations, should not be penalised because of the recent allegations.
“The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met,” he said.
UNRWA lifesaving assistance is about to end following countries decisions to cut their funding to the Agency.
Our humanitarian operation, on which 2 million people depend as a lifeline in Gaza, is collapsing. I am shocked such decisions are taken based on alleged behavior of a…
— Philippe Lazzarini (@UNLazzarini) January 27, 2024
Which nations have cut funding for UNRWA? Which have not?
The wave of suspensions of funding started with the US on Friday, right after the investigation was announced.
Canada, Australia, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland joined Washington in the last two days.
Ireland and Norway, however, expressed continued support for UNRWA, saying the agency does crucial work to help Palestinians displaced and in desperate need of assistance in Gaza.
“We need to distinguish between what individuals may have done, and what UNRWA stands for,” a statement by Norway’s government said, adding the organisation’s tens of thousands of employees in Gaza, the West Bank, and the region play a “crucial role” in distributing aid, saving lives, and safeguarding basic needs and rights.
Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin wrote on X: “Ireland has no plans to suspend funding for UNRWA’s vital Gaza work.”