The UNRWA dilemma

With Gaza on the brink of famine, there are three ways to deliver humanitarian aid. Israeli leaders don't like any of them
Workers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) hand out flour rations and other supplies to people at an UNRWA warehouse in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 12, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Workers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) hand out flour rations and other supplies to people at an UNRWA warehouse in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 12, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The United States, along with 14 other countries, suspended aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the main UN agency working in Gaza, due to credible allegations by the Israeli government that 12 UNRWA employees were tied to the Hamas attacks on October 7th and perhaps another 1,200 are Hamas members. With 13,000 employees in Gaza, UNRWA builds and operates schools, medical clinics, shelters and playgrounds, and provides food and housing assistance for the 2.3 million Palestinians living in the enclave. UNRWA employs 30,000 Palestinians throughout the Middle East, serving the civic and humanitarian needs of 5.9 million descendants of the 1949 refugees in Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank as well as in vast camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Even before the barbarous October 7 attacks, the Israelis have long claimed that UNRWA fosters Palestinian grievances and nationalism that is focused on the idea of the right of millions of refugees to repatriate to Israel.

Since UNRWA’s establishment in 1949, the U.S. has been the largest donor, contributing over 6 billion dollars to the agency. During this most recent war in Gaza, UNRWA has been a lifeline to displaced Gazans. Any funding pause puts over 2 million people at risk “for their sheer survival”, according to UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini. Further, despite White House assurance that good work of a whole agency should not be impugned because of the potential bad actions here by a small number, these terror allegations against UNRWA risk the collapse of the entire institution just as the Gazan people are on the brink of famine.

As the Biden administration suspends funding to UNRWA, it must face a hard truth about the humanitarian operations and logistics in Gaza. Only UNRWA, the Israelis, or the Palestinian Authority under a multilateral trusteeship have the capacity to provide comprehensive assistance to Gaza. There are no other options. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu opposes all; his position may lead to a breach with the White House over the future of Gaza and provide a real opportunity for the Palestinian Authority to begin to build state institutions in the enclave.

Clearly, the international community could continue to work with UNRWA. But to restore funding, the donors must demand immediate management and organizational reform from the top to the bottom, including vetting and purging any Hamas members in the staffing ranks. This funding condition will require that UNRWA work closely with the donors, and appoint an independent inspector general answerable to the major donors. Further, the UN, through the General Assembly or the Security Council, will have to separate the negotiating question of the Palestinians’ right of return to Israel from UNRWA’s core humanitarian responsibilities in Gaza. For the duration of the war, and perhaps the immediate aftermath, UNRWA should be solely focused on alleviating human suffering.

If the donors dismantle UNRWA, there are other options, beginning with the state of Israel. Under international humanitarian law, the Israeli government is the occupying authority in Gaza. Consequently, Israel has a duty of care for the 2.3 million people in Gaza, currently served largely by UNRWA humanitarian systems and infrastructure. Under this scenario, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) would provide the social services to Gazan civilians, presumably through international NGOs and other specialized social services. COGAT in essence would replace UNRWA, and Israeli taxpayers would serve as the donors. Imagine Netanyahu’s response.

The third option rests with the Palestinian Authority operating through a multinational trusteeship that provides ongoing humanitarian support and social services to Gazans. In this case, the Palestinian Authority would begin to assume all UNRWA assets including schools, clinics, facilities, vehicles, and staff, while devolving itself of UNRWA liabilities including specifically any Hamas members working for the UN agency. The Palestinian Authority politically opposes Hamas and would serve as a logical Palestinian check against Hamas infiltration. To provide adequate oversight and accountability, the major donors would establish a multinational trusteeship for Gaza’s recovery and reconstruction. This third option allows for the Palestinian Authority to gradually construct its presence in a post-war Gaza.

There are no viable alternatives to these three options. The major international NGOs have a few dozen staff on the ground in Gaza, they cannot and will not scale up to replace the entire UNRWA infrastructure. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees does not and has never operated in Gaza. All of the other UN agencies including the World Food Programme and World Health Organization deploy to Gaza under UNRWA’s infrastructure. As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield once famously quipped, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. The same is true with humanitarian responses to complex emergencies.

The Netanyahu government and its allies will oppose UNRWA, reject a Palestinian Authority presence in Gaza, and clearly will not order the IDF to provide the required duty of care to the Gazan people. After 75 years, UNRWA could very well be an agency that has outlived its mandate. Perhaps it is time for a Palestinian Authority to gradually assume UNRWA services as the governing authority for the Palestinian people in the future state of Palestine.

About the Author
R. David Harden (@Dave_Harden) is a former assistant administrator at USAID’s bureau for democracy, conflict and humanitarian assistance; a former USAID mission director to the West Bank and Gaza; and a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Middle East peace.
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