What's In Blue

Posted Tue 16 Apr 2024

“The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”: Briefing on the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)

Tomorrow afternoon (17 April), the Security Council is expected to hold an open briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is expected to brief. The meeting was scheduled after Jordan requested that a ministerial-level Council meeting be convened on the challenges faced by UNRWA in a 1 April letter to the president of the Security Council.

Following the 7 October 2023 large-scale attacks against Israel led by Hamas, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have carried out massive airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. On 27 October 2023, the IDF also launched a ground operation initially focused on northern Gaza and later extended to most other areas of the Gaza Strip. Figures provided by Palestinian officials in Gaza cited by OCHA indicate that, as at 15 April, at least 33,797 Palestinians had been killed. Large areas of Gaza have been bombed to the ground, with about 90 percent of the buildings located along the demarcation line between Gaza and Israel being destroyed or damaged, according to the UN Satellite Centre (UNOSAT). Figures provided by Israeli authorities cited by OCHA indicate that more than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in Israel, the vast majority on 7 October 2023. As at 15 April, an estimated 133 Israelis and foreign nationals remain captive in Gaza. (For background, see the brief on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” in our April 2024 Monthly Forecast.)

The challenges that UNRWA is facing in providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza, and in guaranteeing the agency’s capacity to continue its operations more generally, are expected to be a key focus of tomorrow’s meeting. Lazzarini is likely to update Council members on the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and on UNRWA’s role in providing food assistance, healthcare, and other services. He is also likely to highlight the severe effects of the conflict on UNRWA’s operations. According to the latest UNRWA situation report, issued on 16 April, 178 UNRWA employees have been killed during the war in Gaza and 163 UNRWA installations in the Gaza Strip have been damaged, with only nine out of 24 UNRWA healthcare centres remaining operational.

Since 18 January Israel has presented the UN with information, for which it reportedly has yet to provide evidence, that 12 UNRWA employees played a role in the 7 October 2023 attacks. UNRWA terminated the contracts of the employees allegedly involved and the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the main investigative body of the UN, began investigating the allegations upon the request of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Separately, the UN also mandated an independent review led by former French Minister of Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna on how UNRWA upholds neutrality principles. The review group is expected to present its findings on 20 April.

Tomorrow, Council members may be interested in receiving an update from Lazzarini on the financial stability and the funding needs of UNRWA. Following Israel’s allegations, 16 countries announced that they were freezing their funding to UNRWA, a decision that humanitarian and human rights organisations have sharply criticised. These countries included some Council members, such as Japan and the US, which said that they would suspend any “additional funding”, and the UK, which stated that it would pause any future funding.

Against the backdrop of prolonged financial precarity experienced by UNRWA—which largely depends on voluntary donations for its funding—the suspension of the contributions, particularly from large donor countries such as the US, risked bringing UNRWA’s operations to a halt. As a result, Lazzarini stated in a 4 March address to the General Assembly,  the agency was at a “breaking point” and its ability to fulfil its mandate was “seriously threatened”. While several countries that suspended their funding have recently announced a reversal of their decisions (including Japan), the US passed legislation on 23 March banning US funding to UNRWA until 2025.

In March, Israeli news outlets reported that the IDF had decided to work to dismantle UNRWA in Gaza and to replace it with an alternative body. This development followed several other measures and statements by Israeli officials, which Lazzarini referenced in a 22 February letter to the president of the General Assembly as being part of “a concerted effort by some Israeli officials to deceptively conflate UNRWA with Hamas, to disrupt UNRWA’s operations, and to call for the dismantling of the Agency”.

In a 24 March post on X (formerly Twitter), Lazzarini said that Israeli authorities had informed the UN that they would no longer approve any UNRWA food convoys to northern Gaza, a situation which Lazzarini said would lead to the clock ticking “faster towards famine”. In March, an Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report said that famine is “imminent in the northern governorates of the Gaza Strip and projected to occur anytime between mid-March and May 2024”. Although Israel has recently committed to several measures to improve the flow of aid into Gaza, Lazzarini said on 12 April that “[t]he increase in aid is not yet tangible, sustained or uninterrupted”. Tomorrow, Lazzarini is expected to urge Israel to lift all restrictions on UNRWA’s work in Gaza, a call which several members may echo.

Lazzarini is also likely to reiterate key messages on the crisis that the UN has been highlighting and demand an immediate ceasefire, the release of all hostages, and the protection of all civilians. Council members may call for respect for international humanitarian law, condemn all attacks on aid workers, and call for accountability. Several Council members are expected to express support for UNRWA’s work and call on member states to scale up contributions to UNRWA in order to ensure that the agency has the necessary resources to continue its operations. Lazzarini and several Council members may echo recent messages by Guterres stressing that UNRWA represents “the backbone” of UN humanitarian operations in Gaza and that it “remains indispensable and irreplaceable, a lifeline for millions of Palestine refugees, and critical for regional stability”.

The US may take a more guarded approach, emphasising its concern at the alleged involvement of UNRWA staff in the 7 October 2023 attacks and its support for the OIOS investigation and the independent review group led by Colonna. It seems that while in past Council negotiations the US has opposed language recognising UNRWA’s role in Gaza, it agreed to an 11 April press statement on “humanitarian workers and the threat of famine in Gaza”, which contained language underlying Council members’ “support for the lifesaving efforts of all UN personnel and agencies, including UNRWA, that are working to deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza”.

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