UNRWA on the brink

Summary: the UN agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees is on the brink of collapse, facing huge funding cuts and a dire situation amid the war in Gaza. But now more than ever, Europeans need to support its operations or risk an even more unstable situation.

We thank Kelly Petillo and the European Council on Foreign Relations for permission to reprint a shortened version of her ECFR article “On the brink: why Europeans need to save UNRWA from collapse.” The full article is available here. Kelly is the ECFR’s Programme Manager for the Middle East and North Africa and a regular contributor to the Arab Digest podcast. You can find here latest AD podcast here.

Right when it is most needed, the only international organisation dedicated to supporting Palestinian refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is facing collapse. Following Israeli claims that 12 UNRWA employees participated in the Hamas-led attacks on 7 October, a number of countries suspended their funding to the agency – including UNRWA’s top two donors, the United States and Germany. While some have partially reinstated or resumed funding in light of UNWRA’s response and the fact that Israel’s claims have not been independently verified, the agency has lost the bulk of its financial support. Even before 7 October, UNRWA was facing a huge budget deficit, routinely scrambling to meet its budgetary requirements. Now, even with some EU countries boosting their contributions, the suspension of funding has left a US$ 450 million hole and the amount of aid entering Gaza has halved.

At the same time, the war is taking a huge toll on the agency’s Gaza staff, infrastructure, and overall ability to operate. The agency has reported 162 UNRWA staff and 404 people in UNRWA shelters have been killed by Israeli strikes and almost 1,400 have been injured since the start of the war, while 157 UNRWA installations have been damaged. Without a ceasefire and an immediate resumption of funding, even with some extra funding that enables it to function, UNRWA staff, its partners and the agency itself are at huge risk.

But losing UNRWA would have dire humanitarian and security consequences. The agency is the “backbone” of humanitarian support to Palestinians and provides state-level services in ways that other UN agencies cannot. Depriving Palestinians of UNRWA would create a huge vacuum likely to be exploited by Hamas and other groups in Palestinian territories and host countries like Lebanon. This would only create more instability in a time of high vulnerability for the Middle East.

The latest accusations against UNRWA have coincided with a new push against the organisation by Israeli leaders, including Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu who called for “the replacement of UNRWA”. Israeli security officials have sought to moderate these statements, clarifying that they do not want UNRWA to disappear overnight but instead look for a long-term replacement.

UNHCR is often mentioned as an alternative. The agency deals with all non-Palestinian refugees and already supports some categories of Palestinian refugees in areas falling outside of UNRWA’s mandate. The 1951 Refugee Convention (under Article 1D) stipulates that Palestinian refugees in third countries would fall under UNHCR mandate if UNRWA is dissolved. But replacing UNRWA amid an unprecedented humanitarian crisis will inevitably result in gaps in support. UNRWA is unique in how it provides state-like services that other UN agencies cannot deliver, such as health and education at all levels and employment to 30,000 Palestinians, and UNHCR’s mandate is far more limited on this front.

The lives of +2 million people have been devastated in Gaza and the catastrophic situation deteriorates by the minute [photo credit: UNRWA]
The lives of over 2 million people have been devastated in Gaza and the catastrophic situation deteriorates by the minute [photo credit: UNRWA]
Besides creating huge gaps in an already dire humanitarian situation, terminating UNRWA would also not achieve Israeli political goals to erase the Palestinian right of return to present-day Israel or the right to compensation: Palestinian refugees would retain this right under international law and UN General Assembly resolution 194 and successive generations of Palestinian refugees would still be entitled to refugee status.

Another option sometimes mooted is for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to take charge of providing services in the Palestinian Territories. However, this faces several challenges. Firstly Israel is against a PA presence in Gaza. Secondly, to the PA itself, this would mean political suicide: it has no legal mandate to represent the 3.3 million Palestinian refugees living outside the Palestinian Territories in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. A takeover might lead to perceptions that the PA is complicit in suppressing this right to return to Palestine. Lastly, it is difficult to imagine the PA having the capacity to take charge given its already dire financial situation which has been compounded by the war.

UNRWA certainly faces real issues. But Europeans should be careful not to play into Israeli efforts to delegitimise not just the organisation but the Palestinian right of return. Rather than ending UNRWA, the fact that over time the agency’s mandate has been extended, and Palestinians’ needs only grow, points to the need for an enhanced UN mandate to support Palestinians more comprehensively, as experts on the issue have been arguing even before 7 October. Europeans should immediately resume all funding amid the current desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza. In the long term, they should support such an expanded mandate with political buy-in and a comprehensive support package.

The basic rights of Palestinian refugees should be at the centre of this enhanced mandate, which should be depoliticised and rather based on key humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality. This might incentivise donors to provide UNRWA with more predictable, multi-year funding. At the same time, donors should make clear that the rights of Palestinian refugees, including the right of return, should remain and be upheld.

UNRWA’s mandate should also see an expansion of protection services, like relief from trauma and distress – which could also prevent people from embracing extremist ideologies – as already set out by UNRWA’s strategic plan. It should also focus on helping Palestinians multiply the effects of donor support, rather than rely on it, through programmes facilitating economic self-reliance. This would also be more cost-effective for donors. Moreover, to address donor concerns over potential collusion with Hamas, the UN could set up an independent monitoring mechanism to inspect the delivery of aid to Gaza as well as regularly vetting UNRWA staff and partners.

Lastly, instead of having agencies clashing over what falls under which mandate, the approach should involve a cooperative framework where the UN and other agencies act under one umbrella to ensure support to Palestinians, aided by NGOs and civil society, especially those led by Palestinians.

Getting rid of UNRWA is unlikely to address key Israeli and Western concerns. Rather this moment represents an opportunity to make the agency more effective in the current crisis and more sustainable in the post-war scenario, both in Gaza and other regions where displaced Palestinians are living. But these discussions are irrelevant as long as UNRWA risks collapsing. All European donors including Germany must urgently renew their funding and not wait for the result of a full UN investigation into claims over Hamas links. After the war, the aim should be for UNRWA to continue serving Palestinian refugees until a fair and just solution for them is found.

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