IMEU Policy Analysis #10 | UNRWA: Implications of Cutting Off US Funding

March 13, 2024
IMEU Policy Analysis #10 | UNRWA: Implications of Cutting Off US Funding

Photo credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid/Flickr, Creative Commons License.


  • President Biden cut off funding for UNRWA, an agency which has provided basic services to Palestinian refugees for the past 75 years, based on unproven allegations against a small fraction of UNRWA employees which were extracted under torture.
  • Several bills introduced in the current Congress contemplate permanently cutting off US appropriations to UNRWA in a bid to undermine Palestinian refugees’ status and right to return home.
  • Any effort to cut off funding to UNRWA either temporarily or permanently will greatly exacerbate the catastrophic humanitarian conditions faced by Palestinians under Israel’s blockade of Gaza, leading to further deprivation, including starvation and dehydration.

ICYMI: IMEU hosted a webinar for Congressional staff on the US suspension of aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Watch the recording of a critical discussion featuring the Director of UNRWA’s Washington office, William Deere, and the Jerusalem Fund Executive Director, Jehad Abusalim: The U.S. ban on UNRWA funding: What will this mean for millions of refugees?

➡️ What is the issue?

The UN Relief and Works Agency, which is the only UN refugee agency operating in Gaza, faces a shortfall of $450 million – nearly half of its budget – after the US and other nations suspended funding over unproven allegations against 13 of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff members. The 12 staff members named in the allegations were terminated from their positions.

UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini has called the suspension of funding an “additional collective punishment” against Palestinian people, and he warned that if it does not receive necessary funding, the agency may be forced to suspend its operations.

➡️ What’s UNRWA?

UNRWA was founded as a UN humanitarian organization that was initially only intended as a temporary means to assist Palestinian refugees who had been forcibly displaced by Israel in 1948.

However, Israel has refused to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which establish the right of Palestinian refugees to return home. Israel’s 75-year-long refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return home has perpetuated the Palestinian refugee crisis and necessitates the continuation of UNRWA’s provision of services to Palestinian refugees.

❗According to Lazzarini, the agency has the “near impossible task of delivering high-quality, low-cost public services to Palestine Refugees in lieu of a state,” as he stated in a plea to the UN General Assembly.

➡️ Why UNRWA, specifically, as opposed to other humanitarian organizations?

During the last 150+ days of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, UNRWA has been the main supplier of food, water and shelter for internally displaced Palestinians.

⛔ International organizations are in agreement that they cannot fill the void which would be created should UNRWA collapse. They have said UNRWA’s “delivery of humanitarian assistance cannot be replaced by other agencies working in Gaza,” in a statement signed by 24 NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and Oxfam.

➡️ What will this mean for millions of refugees?

Since October 7th, Israel has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians and forcibly displaced more than 75% of Gaza’s population.

Due to Israel’s deliberate starvation of Palestinians, more than two million people are facing crisis or worse levels of food insecurity. At least 15 children have died of malnutrition and dehydration at one hospital in northern Gaza, according to the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health.

⚠️ If UNRWA collapses, the death toll of Palestinians will certainly rise due to starvation, dehydration, and disease, as they will not have access to the basic necessities UNRWA provides.

The agency’s operations were already severely impacted by Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. As of March 2, Israeli forces damaged at least 50 UNRWA facilities – including schools – which provided shelter for up to 1.9 million internally displaced persons since October 7th.

Despite the attacks on their facilities, UNRWA staff continue to provide food security, psychosocial support, and medical services under life-threatening conditions. Between October 7 and February 26, UNRWA provided over 2.5 million medical consultations at UNRWA health centers and shelters.

In late February, a representative from Plan International’s EU Liaison Office said, “Any further cuts to UNRWA funding would be an effective death sentence for civilians trapped in Gaza and the region who rely on the agency for their survival.”

➡️ What’s the outcome of the UN investigation?

UN investigators are still waiting to receive materials from Israel regarding its accusations made against UNRWA employees. On March 5, Australia’s government urged Israel to provide evidence for their allegations.

❗Moreover, in a recent report reviewed by Reuters, UNRWA said some of their employees were forced to make confessions under torture, including physical abuse and sexual exploitation during detention. The agency said, “These forced confessions as a result of torture are being used by the Israeli authorities to further spread misinformation about the agency as part of attempts to dismantle UNRWA.”

➡️ What are UNRWA’s protocols?

As a subsidiary organ of the United Nations, UNRWA abides by all the necessary procedures and protocols mandated by international humanitarian law. UNRWA’s operations are reviewed by the General Assembly, and its financial reports and financial statements are audited by the UN Board of Auditors.

The agency’s staff is selected and appointed by UNRWA’s Commissioner General, and UNRWA’s staff lists are provided to Israel each year. Israel has never previously flagged any issues with staff, according to UNRWA Director at the Washington Office, William Deere. In fact, Deere says that UNRWA staff have consistently reported any activities that violated UN codes to Israeli authorities.

➡️ Who funds UNRWA?

UNRWA operations are largely funded by UN member states, the top contributors being the US, Germany, and the European Commission. The European Commission has announced it will resume funding for UNRWA with $54 million initially. Additionally, both Sweden and Canada are set to resume their scheduled funding, and Ireland declared that they will support UNRWA with an additional $21.46 million.

Norway is one of the countries that refused to suspend funding for the agency, and Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs predicts that other countries will resume funding soon, too.

➡️ What’s the role of the US?

Despite the international community's consensus on the critical role played by UNRWA in providing essential services to Palestinian refugees and the resumption of funding to it from several quarters, the US has yet to lift its suspension of funding for the organization.

Instead of resuming UNRWA funding, the US airdropped food packages in North Gaza, killing five additional Palestinians due to parachute failures.

Moreover, the airdropped meals do little to nothing for more than 2 million Palestinians who have been denied access to food and water due to Israel’s intentional starvation of the Palestinian people. An estimated 576,000 Palestinians are at immediate risk of dying from Israeli-created conditions of starvation, dehydration, and infectious diseases.

In response to the US airdrop, former USAID coordinator Dave Harden said that “Administration officials are doing this just to make themselves feel better.”

Additionally, the US is implicated in Israel’s acts of plausible genocide and killing of Palestinians through its more than 100 undisclosed weapons sales since October 7 – their exact amounts and costs are unknown. Multiple reports, including a February investigation by Amnesty International, found that Israel used US bombs and munitions in attacks on Palestinians.

➡️ What’s the solution?

According to UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini, a ceasefire and lifting of the siege on Gaza will “allow meaningful life saving aid and commercial supplies [that] are long overdue.”

➡️ ASKS:

  1. Reinstate UNRWA funding in order to prevent rapidly escalating deaths due to starvation, dehydration, and disease.
  2. Halt all US weapons transfers to Israel that are being used in acts of plausible genocide against Palestinian people.
  3. Ensure that Palestinians have the security, resources, and aid to facilitate their return home, which is the right of refugees guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reflected in UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

As Lazzarini said when he addressed the UN General Assembly in early March, UNRWA was “always meant to be temporary.” He added, “It is a stain on our collective conscience that for 75 years UNRWA has had to fill a vacuum left by the lack of a political solution and a genuine peace.”