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Defunding UNRWA would be both disproportionate and dangerous

By : Josep Borrell

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

Jorddan Daily  – In recent days, the allegations against employees of UNRWA were a recurrent topic of discussions. The agency has taken immediate steps and launched an investigation. While some important donors suspended funding, there is a wide recognition that UNRWA is central to providing vital aid to more than 1,1 million people in Gaza suffering from catastrophic hunger and the outbreak of diseases. Defunding the agency would put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

This has been an intense week. Starting with the Investors Conference for Central Asia, the informal Council of Defense Ministers, the European Council meeting, the EU-Indo Pacific and EU-ASEAN ministerial meetings, and finally the informal Foreign Affairs Council on Saturday. Throughout all of those events the wars in Ukraine and Gaza featured prominently and in particular the issue of future funding of UNRWA after allegations made by Israel that at least 12 employees, of UNRWA – the United Nations agency responsible for supporting Palestine refugees – participated in the atrocious Hamas-led attack on 7 October.

The allegations against UNRWA staff are serious and no one responsible should go unpunished. However, UNRWA reacted immediately and the contracts of the accused staff members were terminated. An investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services is underway and I am confident that it will be complemented by the start of an independent external investigation before the next payment of the European Commission is due at the end of the month. UN Secretary-General Guterres has assured me that the United Nations are giving the issue the importance it deserves. I fully trust him.

The last meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council saw a wide recognition that UNRWA is an irreplaceable supplier of lifesaving aid to the Palestinians. While some important donors and some EU member states have indeed suspended their financial contributions, the issue has been accompanied by misunderstandings and disinformation. In fact, neither the European Commission, nor Germany or France have decided to end their contributions. Some EU Member States will even frontload and increase their payments. I have invited UNRWA Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, to attend the next Foreign Affairs Council on Development on 12 February and expect the UN’s Coordinator in Gaza, Sigrid Kaag, to debrief the Foreign Affairs Council.

While the emotions prompting suspensions of funding are understandable, political responsibility has to look beyond emotions and consider the consequences of such a step. Defunding UNRWA would be both disproportionate and dangerous. UNRWA has been given a very difficult task by the UN General Assembly, including by all EU Member States. The agency is expected to deliver high quality, low-cost public services in a high-risk environment employing mainly local staff. In Gaza alone 13,000 local staff, who are themselves victims of the ongoing humanitarian tragedy, are playing a critical role in distributing food, water, and medicine to 1,1 million people suffering from catastrophic hunger and the outbreak of diseases. They are also providing a roof to nearly 1 million displaced people in over 150 emergency shelters and around 23,000 medical consultations per day.

But UNRWA’s role goes far beyond the assistance it provides directly to Gaza. It is central to the entire aid operation inside Gaza.  No other UN agency, such as the World Food Programme (WFP) or the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), could manage operations without UNRWA’s infrastructure, logistics and personnel. As pointed out by the UN’s Coordinator in Gaza, Sigrid Kaag, “it is critical to recognise the central role that UNRWA plays in the Gaza Strip. There is no way that any organization can replace it”.

Currently, the suspended funds amount to more than USD 440 million, almost half of the agency’s expected income in 2024, putting its very existence at risk. Should UNRWA cease or limit services, which may be the case as early as the end of February, it would significantly aggravate the ongoing dramatic humanitarian crisis. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, not only in Gaza, are at stake

Such a disproportionate response would be difficult to conceive elsewhere. If some doctors in a European hospital were involved in criminal activities, there would be a thorough investigation and all appropriate actions would be taken. However, no government would ever stop funding the health service, as this would primarily punish the people who receive these services. The wrongdoing of individuals should never lead to the collective punishment of an entire population.

Moreover, as I discussed this week with some of my counterparts from Arab countries, UNRWA’s demise would also be a serious risk for regional stability. The UN agency does not only provide essential services in war-torn Gaza, it also supplies healthcare, education, and other vital services to some 5.6 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. In all its places of operation, it pays salaries to almost 30,000 employees, most of whom are teachers, doctors and nurses. It provides education for about 250,000 children in over 420 schools, food assistance to around 900,000 people, and access to health care for almost 2 million patients.

In the whole Middle East, UNRWA is perceived as a guarantee of the commitment of the international community to a political solution for Palestinians and the agency plays a critical role in contributing to the stability of the wider region. Any reduction in UNRWA services would increase pressure on the West Bank and Israel’s Arab neighbours at a time of deepening socio-economic crisis and an increasingly volatile security situation.

Certainly, some prominent member of the current Israeli government would like to see UNRWA closed, as repeatedly stated publicly. They have argued that UNRWA contributes to perpetuating the Palestinian refugee issue by granting refugee status across generations, despite this approach being in accordance with international law. These calls are by no means new; in 2018, they culminated in a suspension of US funding under President Trump, a move that has left the agency financially strained ever since. But suppressing the agency would not make the issue of Palestinian refugees vanish, it would only make it worse.

Members of the Israeli security establishment and civil society have warned that in the absence of UNRWA, Israel would have to step in and play a more direct role in the very challenging task of distributing food, medicine and other essential services. Israel, as the occupying power, has responsibility for the wellbeing of the Palestinian people under the Geneva Convention.

Advocating for the end of UNRWA often confuses cause with consequence. The agency’s continued existence, since it was established in 1949, is the direct consequence of the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been resolved. We should concentrate all our efforts on addressing this deeper cause and finally implementing the two-state solution advocated by the International community and all EU member states. UNRWA’s mission will automatically end once a sovereign Palestinian state, living peacefully side-by-side with Israel, has been established.

I am confident that the UN will take all the necessary measures following the Israeli allegations, and that UNRWA will continue to be a vital lifeline for millions of Palestinian people.

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