UN secretary-general António Guterres’s appeal to world leaders, supported by Tánaiste Micheál Martin, to continue their funding of the Palestinian relief agency UNRWA is urgent and vital. Unlike other UN agencies, UNRWA, the key lifeline supplying food and shelter to beleaguered Gazans, does not have strategic financial reserves and, Guterres warned, its services might need to be reduced as soon as February.
Guterres and the UNRWA leadership have deplored the alleged involvement of a small number of the agency’s 13,000 Gaza employees in the brutal Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th , and moved immediately to fire them pending a full inquiry.
But they warn the eight countries, led by the US and UK, which have now suspended their contributions to the agency, that cutting off aid will cripple its vital humanitarian work, accelerating Gaza’s collapse. UNRWA, 150 of whose staff have died in the Israeli assault on Gaza, is currently helping to feed up to two million people and sheltering hundreds of thousands of internally displaced in its schools and hospitals. Meanwhile, 141 of its facilities have been damaged or destroyed. Its commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, is warning of impending catastrophe
Israel has long viewed the agency, established in 1949 to respond to the forced exodus of over 700,000 Palestinians from Israel during the war surrounding its creation , as hostile, and effectively an agent of Hamas. It sees the latest revelations as an opportunity to renew demands for its disbandment. The agency’s defenders argue that the sins of a few individuals should not be blamed on UNRWA, or used to jeopardise its work.
Martin’s welcome reiteration that Ireland, which contributed €18 million to UNRWA in 2023, will continue its support in 2024 echoes a similar stance taken by Norway.
Ironically, a collapse in the delivery of services to Gaza could force Israel to shoulder a greater role in aid distribution – a role it surely would not want.