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Growing donor support for UNRWA shows vote of confidence in embattled agency

FILE - Displaced Palestinians wait to receive United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) aid, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 7, 2024.
FILE - Displaced Palestinians wait to receive United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) aid, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 7, 2024.

The head of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians, reports many countries have resumed the funding that they suspended following allegations by Israel in late January that several staff members were linked to terrorism.

“In January, once the allegations had been made public, up to 16 countries suspended their contributions to the agency,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said Tuesday.

“The good news is that as of today, most of the donor countries have resumed their contributions to the agency. We just have a handful of countries who still have to take a decision,” he said.

Three months ago, Israel accused 12 UNRWA staff members of involvement in Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel October 7, in which some 1,200 people were killed in Israel and around 250 taken hostage by the Palestinian militants. The U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services is conducting an investigation to determine the veracity of those allegations.

A separate independent panel was tasked with determining whether UNRWA was doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality. Its report issued last week, the “Colonna report,” found no evidence that UNRWA staff were members of “terrorist” groups but acknowledged that “neutrality-related issues persist.”

Former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who chaired the inquiry committee, called UNRWA “indispensable and irreplaceable” in providing humanitarian relief to many of the more than 2 million Palestinians in Gaza who lack food, water, and other essential lifesaving commodities.

Lazzarini told journalists in Geneva that $267 million in aid remains frozen because the United States, UNRWA’s main contributor “will not be able to support the agency before March 2025.”

“But, meanwhile, they are recommending that other countries support UNRWA,” he said, noting that the United Kingdom, Austria, and Switzerland have not taken decisions “while all others have resumed funding for UNRWA.”

“The good news also on the funding is that we have new donors who before never contributed to the agency. And I want to flag the success of private funding,” he said noting that UNRWA has received more than $115 million in private funding in the last six months.

“This is an indication of the extraordinary grassroots solidarity expressed toward Palestinians and also to the agency,” he said.

Lazzarini briefed member states Tuesday morning on the latest developments in the Gaza Strip. He told them that colleagues on the ground speak of an “extraordinary deep anxiety” prevailing in Gaza and warn that the likelihood of a military offensive depends on “whether a cease-fire deal is reached this week.”

“People have not been asked to evacuate from Rafah but there is a sense that if there is no deal this week that this can happen at any time,” he said.

In the meantime, he said the U.N. in northern Gaza was “engaged in a race against the clock to reverse the spreading hunger and the looming famine.”

He observed that U.N. aid agencies and the Israeli authorities do not see eye to eye on a great number of issues and are engaged in what he calls “the blame game.” He said the Israelis maintain that they are “providing all necessary food” and that the problem is on the side of the United Nations.

“This is not true. Our convoys are systematically denied, so we still have no access,” he said.

“This morning, I also highlighted the fact that the agency is under a lot of strain. There are calls for the agency to be dismantled. But the agency also has been targeted in the last six to seven months in Gaza where both our staff and our premises as well as our operations” have been under attack.

Since the start of the war, October 7, UNRWA reports 182 staff members have been killed and more than 160 premises have been damaged or destroyed.“Most of these premises were sheltering displaced people and more than 400 people have been killed in these premises,” he said.

Adi Farjon, deputy permanent representative of Israel to the United Nations in Geneva, attended the executive briefing and said, “From the beginning, Israel has been clear it views UNRWA Gaza as part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Since Israel shared details of an investigation of UNRWA members “who took part in the October 7 massacre” with the commissioner general, she said Israel has only dealt with the facts.

“For example, it is a fact, that 19 members of the organization took an active part in the October 7 terrorist attack. It is also a fact that more than 2,135 UNRWA workers in Gaza are members of either Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” she said.

Lazzarini countered by saying, “Out of the 19, one person has been completely cleared and is now reinstated, and four people out of the 19, the investigation is now on hold because there is no information available for the time being.”