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Opinion: UNWRA’s day of reckoning is near

Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw (@WorldAffairsPro) is a global affairs analyst and former UNICEF spokesperson for Gaza and the West Bank. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN opinion.

Driving up and down the dust-choked roads of the Gaza Strip as often as we did, it quickly became clear why our partner United Nations agency for assisting Palestinian refugees was considered as an impoverished cousin with an impossible mandate to fulfill.

Michael Bociurkiw - Chrystia Chudczak
Michael Bociurkiw - Chrystia Chudczak

At UNICEF — where I was spokesperson for Gaza and the West Bank from 2004 to 2006 — we had top-of-the-line Toyota Land Cruisers, better offices, and our interventions hardly extended into the nitty gritty tasks like sanitation and camp management that fell under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

We had the luxury of being able to fall back on millions of dollars in extra funding raised through UNICEF national committees in developed countries around the world. We had the heft — both in terms of resources and reputation — to draw top-tier media to those dusty roads for glowing coverage of our glitzy flagship projects such as the Children’s Municipality Councils.

But UNRWA funding differs from other UN agencies such as UNICEF, in that it’s mostly dependent on government funding. And that’s why countries pulling funding — as they have done this past week — is such a potentially fatal blow to its operations.

With its future in peril, after Israeli allegations of 13 UNRWA employees having been associated with Hamas’ October 7 attack prompted countries to withdraw funding, a big question looms: what could fill the void? (UNRWA fired several employees after the allegations and ordered an investigation.)

Some Israeli politicians and officials are calling for its dismantling and have described the agency as nothing more than “a big business” that is “perpetuating the Palestinian problem.”

But the last thing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would want is to take on UNRWA’s responsibilities — which are vast.

Palestinians take shelter at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in Khan Younis, November 15. - Mohammed Talatene/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
Palestinians take shelter at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in Khan Younis, November 15. - Mohammed Talatene/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

UNRWA unique in the UN ecosystem

Since 1949, UNRWA has existed as the international community’s answer for how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It holds a unique role in the UN universe, as we in UNICEF saw up close.

I liken it to the international community creating a humongous and expensive foster parent to care for Palestinians forcibly displaced by Israel — but with no expiration date on the label.

With a payroll of more than 30,000, UNRWA employs more people than the city of Philadelphia. Approximately 13,000 work in Gaza alone.

Furthermore, its mandate requires renewal every three years, making it subject to the whims of powerful member states and the unpredictability of election cycles of the Western democracies that mostly prop it up (it was last renewed in December 2022 by a majority of UN General Assembly members until June 2026, with the US and Israel voting against).

Some UN watchdogs and NGOs say teachers in UNRWA schools spread hate and teach inciteful content to Palestinian children.

But, even with its imperfections, at no time did we ever dream that UNRWA would get caught up in the existential crisis it’s now facing in the Gaza Strip, with at least nine of its major donors suspending funding indefinitely in light of Israel’s allegations.

A vital service

Let there be no mistake: UNRWA services are absolutely vital to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Think of UNRWA as an omnipresent municipal service provider. Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the agency has distributed roughly 100,000 mattresses, 19 million liters of water, 3.1 million diapers, nearly 4.7 million cans of food and $6.2 million worth of medicines. Nearly 1.9 million people — more than the population of the City of Brotherly Love — are currently taking shelter in or near UNRWA facilities, according to its latest situation report.

Even with the situation on the ground in Gaza spiraling towards large scale famine, and amid accusations that they are allowing collective punishment, major donor countries are either withholding funding or, in the case of Canada and Germany, temporarily — and in my opinion, wrongly — shifting some of their donations to other agencies active on the ground in Gaza. But there’s not a chance other UN agencies or NGOs can even partially fill the void caused by UNRWA’s financial paralysis. No one has the lift capacity that UNRWA has to reach those affected.

According to the Palestinian Authority, which had urged donors to reconsider their decision, the number of countries that have announced suspension of funds to UNRWA amounts to a whopping 70% of its annual budget.

Rafa, Gaza, Jan. 28: Bags of flour are seen at the area where UNRWA distributes flour to families. - Abed Zagout/Anadolu/Getty Images
Rafa, Gaza, Jan. 28: Bags of flour are seen at the area where UNRWA distributes flour to families. - Abed Zagout/Anadolu/Getty Images

Searching for answers

If right-wing elements in the fractured Israeli political ecosystem do indeed succeed in their hopes of forcing Palestinians out of Gaza — influential Western allies of Israel largely appear to have ignored this horrific possibility — the Arab world will be forced to respond. And I don’t mean militarily.

Don’t look towards neighboring Jordan or Egypt to pick up the slack. Both have warned that sending Palestinians their way should be considered a red line. Tiny Jordan already hosts at least 2 million Palestinians, including many from Gaza who arrived decades ago.

One option might be for the wealthy Gulf states to take on more of a share of the burden — first, by accepting that UNRWA’s lease on life is coming to an end and second, by helping to fund an expanded UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to take responsibility for Palestinian refugees.

Second, instead of funneling hundreds of millions of hard-to-account-for dollars to the Hamas government in Gaza, countries such as Qatar should rethink their support for Palestinians in the Strip through long-term, sustainable economic support. During our countless visits there, we often speculated at the economic miracle Gaza could be if it were open and safe for tourists and property developers and if export channels were reopened.

Palestinian patients gather at an UNRWA health center to receive medicine in Deir al Balah, Gaza, on January 21. - Ashraf Amra/Anadolu/Getty Images
Palestinian patients gather at an UNRWA health center to receive medicine in Deir al Balah, Gaza, on January 21. - Ashraf Amra/Anadolu/Getty Images

Given the severity of the allegations, this requires a much higher-level intervention — and the UN shouldn’t be investigating itself. The UN secretary general should appoint a special high-level envoy to investigate. After all, the entire UN brand is at stake if these allegations are not addressed properly, and that could spill over onto other UN agencies such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, which are doing excellent life-saving work in the Strip.

But time is of the essence.

Considering the huge burden imposed upon it, coupled with an imperfect mandate and a disdain within Israel for its existence, UNRWA’s days were perhaps always numbered.

The day of reckoning appears to be near, and unless the international community and neighboring states come up with a quick and sustainable solution, there’s a very real possibility the huge death toll in Gaza could multiply and regional instability would only worsen.

And the parent countries which gave birth to UNRWA will only have themselves to blame.

Note: This op-ed has been updated to reflect the latest number of UNRWA employees Israel alleges were associated with Hamas’ October 7 attack.

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