Cuts to UNRWA Are Devastating Gaza

Olaf Becker

UNRWA, the United Nations Palestinian refugee relief agency, has faced severe funding cuts after Israel dubiously accused the organization of ties to Hamas. We spoke with a director of UNRWA in Jordan about the impact of the cuts.

Palestinians in Deir al-Balah, Gaza, flock to receive flour distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), March 3, 2024. (Ashraf Amra / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Interview by
Robin Jaspert

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is now suffering severe funding cuts due to dubious Israeli government charges that some of its employees were involved in Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and that more than 10 percent of its workers are affiliated with Hamas. Israel hasn’t provided any real evidence for these claims. But that hasn’t stopped the United States and allies from slashing UNRWA’s funding, crippling the agency’s ability to provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.

Jacobin contributor Robin Jaspert visited the UNRWA field office in Amman, Jordan, and spoke with Olaf Becker, who has been director of UNRWA Affairs in Jordan since July 2023. Becker talked to Jacobin about UNRWA’s work in Gaza, Israel’s smear campaign against the agency, and the devastating impact of the funding cuts.

Robin Jaspert

What does the work of UNRWA look like? Where do you operate?

Olaf Becker

UNRWA works in five fields. Gaza is the largest operation, and it’s taken on a completely different scale recently. Jordan is the second-largest field, where we have about seven thousand employees. Jordan hosts the largest number of registered refugees, about 42 percent of the 5.9 million Palestinian refugees — 2.4 million in absolute numbers. We also operate in the West Bank, Lebanon, and Syria.

Jordan has the most refugees, and Gaza has the second most. A lot of emphasis has always been on Gaza. Because of the blockades, we have to provide a huge amount of food and aid. Right now, we provide food and aid for over a million people and shelter for over a million people in Gaza.

But even though we provide the same services everywhere, the nature of those services is quite different. In Gaza, we provide food aid. We don’t do that here in Jordan — here our main efforts are around education and health care. We have over 2.4 million registered refugees, from which about four hundred thousand are living in the ten camps we operate here. For those we also provide waste management, garbage collection services, health services, and the like.

Robin Jaspert

You already mentioned that the scale of your work in Gaza has changed significantly since October 7. What else has changed for your work there?

Olaf Becker

The humanitarian need in Gaza is of course critical. Almost 1.5 million people are in Rafah right now, in a city that used to have around two hundred thousand inhabitants. My colleagues say it’s a sea of tents right up to the border.

Basically, all of Gaza has been pushed down to the southern end of the enclave; almost 80 percent of the population is there now. The immediate need for shelter, food, medicine — and, now in winter, clothes — is vast.

The biggest concern we have right now is getting humanitarian aid into Gaza, which has been extremely challenging. A lot of the aid has been coming in through Rafah, but Rafah is a crossing for people, not a commercial crossroads. Prewar we had about five hundred trucks going in per month. Now we have around one hundred, maximum two hundred trucks. And we saw that decline by around 50 percent in February.

Robin Jaspert

A 50 percent decline while the need is increasing?

Olaf Becker

Increasing, increasing, increasing. We do have the International Court of Justice ruling, which instructed Israel to increase aid flow into Gaza, but instead we’re seeing the opposite.

In northern Gaza there are about three hundred thousand people right now. Since January 23, UNRWA has not been able to enter and provide humanitarian aid there. Most of our requests to enter northern Gaza have been denied by the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. But even when we’re allowed in, the destruction of the roads, unexploded missiles, and things like that make any kind of provision extremely difficult.

Looking at the incident that happened a few days ago [on February 28, when Israeli troops opened fire on a large group of Palestinians near Gaza City trying to get food from aid trucks], we can see the desperation is dire. People are on the brink of starvation. We’re getting reports of people eating animal food.

Usually, education is the largest part of our program in Gaza: 70 percent of what we do is education, mostly primary education. It is the largest education program in Gaza. Almost 300,000 out of 550,000 children there are part of our education program.

But education has completely come to a halt. Nearly all our schools have been converted into emergency shelters. We have twenty-two health centers in Gaza, but only seven of them are partially operational now. The others have been overrun. People are sheltering in there. We can’t operate them anymore.

It’s a horrendous and gruesome situation. Should any attacks happen in Rafah now, it would precipitate a catastrophic situation.

Robin Jaspert

How has the situation changed for your colleagues on the ground in Gaza?

Olaf Becker

Over 160 of our colleagues have been killed in Gaza already — many of them with their entire families. It’s the largest loss of life of UN personnel in the history of our organization.

Most of our staff have been displaced. Usually, we have thirteen thousand staff working in Gaza — right now we only have three thousand. But we’re still the largest humanitarian operation in Gaza. We are the backbone of any kind of humanitarian activity. Whether it’s food trucks, logistics, de-escalating conflict with Israeli armed forces or any kind of coordination effort, it all runs through UNRWA.

The suspension of funding for UNRWA threatens to eliminate our capacity to operate on the ground. Even if a lot of aid comes to Gaza, there’s a question of how that aid will be distributed.

Our colleagues in Gaza are suffering the most. They are experiencing the psychological strain of being displaced and continuing to work, never knowing whether their families are safe or not. On top of that comes the pressure of not knowing whether UNRWA’s funding will continue, whether they’ll receive salaries.

But we operate in four other fields as well, and the community is deeply interwoven. If I speak to my staff here — to my health officers and logistics and human resources staff — they all have family in Gaza. Many of them have family in Gaza who were killed. It goes beyond UNRWA workers; it’s the whole community. We have 2.4 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan. That’s why you see so much solidarity with Gaza. Here in Jordan, in Syria, in Lebanon, and in the West Bank, everyone is deeply affected.

Another big issue for us is that we teach human rights in our schools. Just to be clear: we do not condone at all the horrific attacks of October 7. But the response needs to be proportionate. What we’re seeing right now is that 70 percent of Gaza has been destroyed or damaged, and 80 percent of the population has been displaced. Around 70 percent of the victims are women and children. It’s the highest number of women and children as victims in an armed conflict in recent history.

The communities around the Middle East are questioning the values that we’ve been teaching and the double standards they seem to include. Why did the international community come out one way in the Ukraine war, and where is that support in the case of Gaza and the Palestinians? There is a prevalent feeling of abandonment of their rights. We should not underestimate the global impact of what’s happening here in Gaza, regarding the international rule-based order we tried to establish after World War II and for human rights in general.

We should be very careful that the work that we’ve done on that front is not being perceived as a Western tool, implemented only when it suits Western interests. But sadly, this is where we are right now. People have become very cynical about human rights.

Robin Jaspert

Among the allegations against UNRWA that led to funding cuts, Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, said he has evidence that about 12 percent of UNRWA staff are affiliated with Hamas. Recently he claimed that at least 185 of your personnel are involved in Hamas’s military wing. What do you make of these claims?

Olaf Becker

None of these allegations, nor evidence to support them, has been provided to us. We would take these allegations extremely seriously, as we did with the allegation against the twelve staff members [accused of participating in the October 7 attack]. Ten were fired immediately for the protection of the agency; two had passed away already. An investigation by the highest body in the United Nations, independent of UNRWA, was started immediately.

We do background checks like any organization. We also run anyone that we recruit through the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions list. And we also share the list of our employees with our host governments every year. For Gaza and West Bank, this is the Israeli government, and we’ve been doing that for decades.

Israel knows absolutely everybody that works for us. We do the same thing here in Jordan.

Robin Jaspert

In December, the Times of Israel leaked documents from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, revealing plans to push UNRWA out of Gaza in three steps — step one being to claim cooperation between Hamas and UNRWA.

Olaf Becker

This is something the international community needs to be very mindful of. We are executing a United Nations mandate. It is a General Assembly resolution that created UNRWA. We are not a political organization. We’re here to provide humanitarian and development aid to the Palestinians. It’s only the General Assembly that can take that mandate away from us. Neither Israel nor any other state can do that.

We also need to look at the proportionality of this. We’re talking about twelve staff members out of thirteen thousand staff members in Gaza, out of over thirty thousand staff members throughout the Middle East. Even if they really were members of Hamas, they do not represent the organization. Suspending funding for the entire organization, however, is collective punishment — not only of the organization but primarily of the Palestinians refugees that we serve.

Robin Jaspert

$440 million in funding to UNRWA has been cut in response to the allegations. In a statement that was published in the Jordan Times, you said that by the end of February, you would likely have to decrease the scope of your operations if the cuts are not reversed. Since then, the European Commission reversed some of the funding cuts. How are the cuts affecting UNRWA?

Olaf Becker

One of the few pieces of good news is that some of our other donor countries have stepped up their contributions — among others, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland. That will allow us to go through March and April as well.

Also, the recent European Commission commitment is extremely important for us. The European Union is our third-largest donor, so it’s critical from a financial perspective, but we also see this as a political show of confidence that UNRWA has taken key steps to address the issues raised.

Robin Jaspert

Israeli forces are now outside Rafah and threatening to begin an invasion of the city two days before the start of Ramadan on March 10. What are the prospects for the Palestinian people in Gaza?

Olaf Becker

With the coming of Ramadan in less than ten days, it’s extremely important that discussions around a cease-fire continue, and there are some initial promising signals. Any incursion into Rafah right now would be catastrophic from a humanitarian perspective. I hope we have this humanitarian pause or even a cease-fire so that further loss of life can be avoided.

Robin Jaspert

Anything else?

Olaf Becker

We are doing everything that we can to engage our donors so that they resume their funding as soon as possible. We are also doing all we can to attract more funds. At this critical juncture, no one else can do what UNRWA does.

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Olaf Becker is the director of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Affairs in Jordan.

Robin Jaspert is a PhD candidate at the department for international relations and international political economy at Frankfurt’s Goethe University. His work focusses on financial markets, central banks, global power relations, and “sustainable” finance; in addition to his scholarship, he is involved in political education and movement activism.

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