Palestinians have expressed fury at a plan by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees to delegate some duties to other UN agencies, warning of a scheme to “dismantle” the entity.
UNRWA was established in 1949, a year after Israel was founded, and is the only major UN organization dedicated solely to one conflict and one people. It plays a symbolic role that experts say matches its importance as a provider of Palestinian refugees.
The organization has long been a target of Israeli criticism, with claims that it has contributed to the war by teaching anti-Zionist ideas in its schools.
UNRWA is “not merely about providing services,” according to Muhammed Shehada of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor in Switzerland.
“As long as UNRWA exists, it serves as a reminder that the international community bears responsibility for resolving the Palestinian refugee crisis,” he said.
For years, the organization responsible with supporting Palestinians who were forcibly displaced from their homes during the conflict that preceded Israel’s birth — and their descendants — has struggled with finances, falling tens of millions of dollars short of its declared needs.
At first glance, UNRWA president Philippe Lazzarini’s declaration last month that the organization may approach other UN bodies for assistance with service delivery may have appeared to be a dull, bureaucratic cost-sharing scheme.
In the future, relying solely on “voluntary contributions from contributors would not be reasonable,” he added in a statement. “Maximizing relationships within the broader UN system is one possibility that is now being examined.”
Those words were interpreted by Palestinians as a possibly fatal blow to UNRWA’s long-term purpose.
The plan would “violate” UN resolutions that established UNRWA, according to Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, while the Palestine Liberation Organization said refugees would be outraged.
The idea, according to Mohammad Al-Madhoun, a senior official with Hamas, which rules Gaza, is “an attempt to demolish UNRWA as a prelude to discontinuing its function.”
UNRWA is a frontline provider of healthcare, education, and other services to around 5.7 million Palestinian refugees dispersed across the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, with over 30,000 personnel and a budget of $1.6 billion this year.
Former US President Donald Trump explicitly sided with Israel in criticizing UNRWA and threatening to cut off financing to the organization.
Although Lazzarini assured EU lawmakers last year that critical issues were being “handled,” the agency has steadfastly defended its school curriculum against pro-Israel opponents.
Although funding has since been restored by President Joe Biden’s administration, Lazzarini warned in November that UNRWA was facing a “existential threat” due to budget deficits.
According to Tamara Alrifai, a spokeswoman for the agency, this year’s shortfall will be another $100 million, which could deteriorate due to “the increasing cost of commodities and food that the current Ukraine situation has created.”