What UNRWA funding suspensions mean for Gaza

UNRWA, the UN's agency for Palestine refugees, was plunged into crisis on Jan. 26 when Israel accused 12 of its Gaza employees of involvement in Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attack into Israel, which touched off a devastating, now nearly four-month-long war.

The Israeli allegations came on the same day that the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN's top court, ruled that charges brought by South Africa accusing Israel of carrying out acts of genocide in Gaza were "plausible." The ICJ's ruling ordered Israel to take immediate steps to prevent civilian casualities, stop and punish incitements to genocide, and enable the provision of urgently needed humanitarian assistance in the enclave.

"In view of the timing, of the substance, and of the reliance of the ICJ ruling on UNRWA reports, I can only see the allegations as a deliberate attempt to undermine the ruling and to deflect attention away," said Lex Takkenberg, a former UNRWA administrator who, during a 30-year career at the agency, worked as general counsel and chief ethics officer, among other roles.

"If there are 12 people who have misbehaved, they must be punished. And they have already been punished… and the organization must go on doing what it must do, what the humanitarian imperative is dictating it to do, which it has done amazingly well," Takkenberg said.

UNRWA has fired nine of the accused employees, two have been killed, and one is still being identified. The UN has opened an investigation.

In response to the Israeli allegations, the United States, Britain, Germany, and other top donor countries suspended funding to UNRWA. In a statement, nearly two dozen aid organizations said they were "deeply concerned and outraged" by the suspension of funding while around 2.3 million people in Gaza are facing "starvation, looming famine and an outbreak of disease under Israel's continued indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate deprivation of aid."

UNRWA has said the funding suspension threatens the "lifesaving" humanitarian assistance it is providing in dire circumstances in Gaza. The agency is the largest aid organization in Gaza, with some 13,000 employees—nearly all of them Palestinian—in the enclave.

Over 150 UNRWA employees have been killed since Oct. 7. More than one million people who have been displaced by Israel's military campaign are sheltering in or around 154 UNRWA shelters, where at least 360 people have been killed and 1,300 injured in attacks since the fighting began.

The New Humanitarian spoke to Takkenberg to understand the impact of the funding suspension on UNRWA's operations and the humanitarian situation in Gaza, how donors should react to the allegation, the potential fallout from the controversy, and the broader context of relations between Israel and UNRWA.

"The issue has become bigger than an attack on UNRWA; it's an attack on the UN," Takkenberg said.

— Eric Reidy for The New Humanitarian, Jan. 30

See our last reports on the UNRWA controversy and the genocide case against Israel.

Independent panel appointed to investigate UNWRA

UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced Feb. 5 a review of whether the UN Relief & Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is "ensur[ing] neutrality" and properly responding to allegations of possible breaches. The announcement comes after Israel accused UNRWA of involvement in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. The accusation has caused several countries, including the US, to halt funding to the agency. (Jurist)

Hamas 'data center' beneath UNRWA's Gaza headquarters?

The IDF claims to have uncovered a subterranean Hamas "data center" directly below the Gaza Strip headquarters of UNRWA, with multiple computer servers and industrial battery power banks. (ToI) Data Center Dynamics website says that IDF-released videos of the supposed installation "have not been independently verified." This recalls the similar claims in November about a "command center" under Gaza's al-Shifa hospital, now found to be dubious. (The Guardian)

European Commission to continue aid to UNRWA

The European Commission announced March 1 that it has increased support for Palestinians by allocating an extra EUR 68 million through international partners, adding to the EUR 82 million already designated for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in 2024, totaling EUR 150 million. Additionally, EUR 125 million in direct humanitarian aid for Palestinians in 2024 has been allocated. (Jurist)

UNRWA accuses Israel of coercing false confessions

UNRWA on March 4 accused Israel of detaining and torturing some of its staffers, coercing them into making false confessions about the agency's ties to Hamas.

"Some of our staff have conveyed to UNRWA teams that they were forced to (make) confessions under torture and ill-treatment. These false confessions were in response to questioning about relations between UNRWA and Hamas and involvement in the 7 October attack against Israel," UNRWA spokeswoman Juliette Touma said in a statement. (CNN)