Fallout from allegations that U.N. employees took part in last October’s terror attack on Israel continued with the embattled UNRWA announcing that funding cuts will likely force the agency to stop helping some 250,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the main provider of aid to desperate and displaced Palestinians, is running out of money after at least 18 major funders, including Germany and the United States, stopped their pledged donations.
The United Nations is investigating Israeli charges that UNRWA employees were involved in the attack on Israel carried out by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The attack prompted Israel to declare itself on a war footing.
"The situation in Gaza is a festering wound on our collective conscience that threatens the entire region," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told the U.N. General Assembly while laying out his 2024 priorities on Wednesday.
"Nothing justifies the horrific terror attacks launched by Hamas against Israel on 7 October," he said. "Nor is there any justification for the collective punishment of the Palestinian people."
The head of UNRWA’s operations in Lebanon, Dorothee Klaus, said cuts in her budget will have a “severe impact” that could force the agency to stop providing health care, education and other basic services to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, most of whom live in poverty.
“The agency will no longer have funding as of the end of February, so that means our operations would come to a halt during March,” she said.
Essential aid operations could end
UNRWA provides essential services for Palestinians in Lebanon, including education, health care and garbage collection in some of the refugee camps that are home to more than 100,000 Palestinians.
“There is nobody capable to take over these services,” Klaus said, adding that cancer patients, school children and families could all lose access to services.
UNRWA is also the main provider of humanitarian aid to the millions of besieged Palestinians in Gaza caught up in the fighting between Hamas and Israel. With Israel continuing its retaliatory airstrikes and limiting aid shipments, the U.N. says the “risk of famine in Gaza is increasing by the day.”
Earlier in the week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, in consultation with the head of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, appointed an independent panel headed by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna to investigate the Israeli charges and issue a public report by late April.
U.N. officials in the region say it’s difficult to see how innocent Palestinians in Gaza will survive without the help of the UNRWA.
“These accusations come at a time when UNRWA, the largest U.N. organization in the region, is working under extremely challenging conditions to deliver life-saving assistance to the 2 million people in the Gaza Strip who depend on it for their survival amidst one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in the world,” Guterres said.
Call for ouster of Guterres, Lazzarini
In Washington on Wednesday a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on him to demand the resignation of both Guterres and Lazzarini.
The lawmakers say they’ve lost confidence in the U.N. chief and his “ability to ensure that the U.N. is not actively supporting terrorism or giving refuge to known terrorists.”
Israel has asserted that as much as 10% of the 13,000 UNRWA staff in Gaza has ties to Hamas. In the days following Israel’s allegations, UNRWA said donor countries have suspended US$440 million in funding. The agency maintains little cash in reserve, and it is rapidly running out of money and is seeking funding from other donors.
Under a U.N. resolution, UNRWA was set up in 1949 to provide relief to Palestinian refugees in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. At the start of 2023, UNRWA sought US$1.6 billion for its operations, including almost US$850 million for its core budget, particularly its hundreds of schools and health clinics. But it has long faced budget deficits amid tense geopolitics and some criticism of its management.
UNRWA employs 30,000 people across the region and assists nearly 6 million needy Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It’s expected that by March, without a loan or another infusion of cash, the agency will not have the money to pay its workers.
In Lebanon, where the country’s government is already over-stressed by an influx of refugees from Syria, most Palestinians rely on UNRWA health care facilities for everything from basic medicines to vaccines for their children to services for pregnant and lactating women.
Aid agency facing hard choices
Klaus, of UNRWA, said many of the refugees will no longer be able to have their serious medical needs met if and when the agency's funding runs out.
"Given very high poverty rates, hospitalization would most likely have to be deferred by Palestine refugees because they’re unable to cover the costs, and this also includes 600 cancer patients which rely on UNRWA co-funding,” she said. “They have no other place to go.”
And, if UNWRA schools close, some 38,000 Palestinian children from grades one through 12 would be unable to continue their education.
UNWRA is holding out hope that donor nations will reconsider their decision to suspend funding. As the organization looks for creative ways to stretch its dwindling funds, Klaus says she's contemplating some difficult choices.
“Do we keep the children in school or do we have 600 cancer patients potentially dying? Do we close health centers that immunize newborn babies? Do we not collect the garbage?” said Klaus. “All of this is indispensable.”