Who cut funding to UNRWA and why?

Palestinians stand at the entrance of the UNRWA-run University College for Educational Science in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. Picture: Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP

Palestinians stand at the entrance of the UNRWA-run University College for Educational Science in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. Picture: Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP

Published Jan 29, 2024


In a blow to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), funding cuts have been initiated by several Western nations, following accusations against some of its staff for their alleged involvement in the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

The question on everyone’s lips is: who cut the funding and why?

The UN swiftly responded by firing nine out of 12 staff implicated in the allegations and vowing to hold them accountable. However, the abrupt funding reduction has raised concerns, especially considering the humanitarian crisis in Gaza caused by the Israel-Hamas war.

The UNRWA chief, Philippe Lazzarini, expressed shock at the funding cut, emphasising the irresponsible nature of penalising an entire agency and the community it serves based on allegations against a few individuals. Lazzarini stressed this point, particularly in the context of the ongoing war, displacement, and political crises in the region.

Lazzarini said: “Our humanitarian operation, on which two million people depend as a lifeline in Gaza, is collapsing. I am shocked such decisions are taken, based on the alleged behaviour of a few individuals, and as the war continues, needs are deepening and famine looms. Palestinians in Gaza did not need this additional collective punishment. This stains all of us.”

This move has prompted Palestinian officials, including Hamas, to criticise the decision by nearly a dozen Western countries to suspend funding for UNRWA. Urging an immediate reversal of the move, they highlight the great risks this decision poses in the midst of the ongoing war.

Who cut funding to UNRWA?

UNRWA was established in 1949 to support displaced Palestinians. The agency operates in various regions, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, and focuses on areas such as education, healthcare, relief services, infrastructure, and emergency response.

Funded primarily through voluntary contributions, the agency relies heavily on support from the European Union, the United States, Germany, and Sweden, among others.

The recent funding cuts by Western nations, including the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Finland, have dealt a severe blow to UNRWA's ability to carry out its crucial aid work.

Allegations and international response

The allegations against UNRWA staff involve their suspected involvement in the October 7 Hamas attack, as claimed by Israeli authorities. While the US, Canada, Australia, and several European nations have suspended or temporarily paused funding, Ireland and Norway have expressed continued support, emphasising the importance of distinguishing between individual actions and the agency's crucial work.

UNRWA's significance and pleas for support

UNRWA plays a vital role in Gaza, serving as the largest humanitarian actor in the region. Despite the challenges posed by the conflict, thousands of UNRWA staff continue to provide essential services to the Palestinian population. UN officials, including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, have urged donor nations to reconsider their funding withdrawal, emphasising the dire needs of the population that depends on UNRWA's assistance.

International reactions and future implications

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced a review of further steps based on the results of a comprehensive investigation. Meanwhile, Israel has praised the countries that halted support, indicating its long-standing desire to dismantle UNRWA. The situation has escalated into a geopolitical issue, with potential ramifications for the ongoing conflict and the wellbeing of the Palestinian population.

As the funding crisis unfolds, concerns about the immediate humanitarian consequences and the agency's ability to continue its operations persist. The international community closely watches developments, awaiting decisions from key players involved in the funding suspension.

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