Even nations that have cut funding want organisation for Palestinian refugees to continue operations, officials say
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The recent funding freeze by major donors threatened to be the death knell for UNRWA, the agency supporting nearly six million Palestinian refugees that has struggled for years to finance its activities.
Yet there is a reluctance to let it go under – at least in the short term – even among nations that have sought its dissolution, including Israel, officials say.
The funding freezes followed Israeli allegations that a handful of UNRWA staff took part in the October 7 attacks by Hamas on southern Israel.
While those accusations are under review by a UN panel, the more immediate impact will be on the agency’s ability to continue helping Palestinians in Gaza through the humanitarians crisis created by Israel’s war in the territory.
The collapse of UNRWA would deprive millions of Palestinians, not just in Gaza but also in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, of aid, financial support and the healthcare and education services that the agency provides.
However, it would be a political victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long called for an alternative to UNRWA, and for his far-right government.
Despite the torrent of Israeli criticism and allegations over the years, the view that the agency is too important to fail has prevailed.
Behind closed doors, even western countries who are allied with Israel are signalling that they would prefer that UNRWA, however flawed, continues assisting Palestinians in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and elsewhere, to prevent further instability in Middle East.
UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini acknowledged the pressure on his agency during a visit to Jerusalem on Friday, saying he felt compelled to immediately sack nine of the employees implicated by Israel, instead of the normal practice of suspending them pending an investigation.
“Knowing that the organisation is under fierce and ugly attacks, I could not take the risk,” Mr Lazzarini said. “I could have suspended them, but I fired them.”
Two other employees accused by Israel are reportedly dead, and there is uncertainty about the whereabouts of the third.
The UN is investigating Israel’s claims, but even before they emerged Mr Lazzarini had announced a review of the agency’s neutrality in mid-January, with former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna appointed as its head this month.
According to three officials in western donor countries who deal with UNRWA, the agency has for years underestimated the Israeli lobby, not only in the US but also in Europe.
The lobby has been arguing for years that UNRWA staff are biased and that the education material in its schools promotes hatred.
“UNRWA have not been helping themselves. Their reactions have not been the best,” said one of the officials, who spoke to media on condition of anonymity. “You cannot just imply that the issue only concerns a few bad apples, although UNRWA did fire those people and launch an investigation,” he said.
“With so many staff in Gaza, it is plausible that a significant number of them are pro-Hamas. The question should be whether there is something systematic within UNRWA to promote this.”
UNRWA was struggling financially even before the Israeli allegations prompted major donors such as the US, Germany and Britain to suspend funding. The agency said last year that it started 2023 with a debts of $75 million carried over from 2022.