US proposals to fund other agencies instead of UNRWA not viable — senior aid official

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Workers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian 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 Palestinian 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)

A top United Nations official argues that replacing the UN’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees in the middle of the Israel-Hamas war would all but end in a humanitarian disaster in an interview with The Times of Israel earlier this week.

Calls to dismantle UNRWA have mounted following the agency’s January announcement that it had fired or suspended 12 employees who allegedly participated in Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught. The announcement led the US along with over a dozen other countries to suspend their funding, which UNRWA says will force it to stop operating by the end of the month if those decisions remain in place.

The US has said it supports the work UNRWA does in Gaza to provide aid to the Palestinians amid the widening humanitarian crisis sparked by the war. However, Congress is advancing legislation that would bar relief funds from going to UNRWA, and the Biden administration says it will abide by the measure if it passes and is looking into sending US funds to other agencies such as the World Food Program or UNICEF — the UN’s relief agency for children.

Andrea De Domenico, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Palestinian territories tells The Times of Israel that trying to replace UNRWA with other agencies in the middle of the war would not be “viable.”

The humanitarian effort “is not something you can unplug and plug back in somewhere else,” argues the branch head of OCHA, which coordinates the humanitarian effort with the various aid groups on the ground.

UNRWA is currently the primary organization delivering humanitarian aid in Gaza with some 13,000 local staff members. No other agency comes close to UNRWA’s presence in the enclave.

Andrea De Domenico, head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Palestinian territories is interviewed by The Times of Israel on February 6, 2023. (Screen capture/Zoom)

“All of the logistical operations and the entry of the humanitarian aid [into Gaza] is handled by UNRWA, so the moment you [de]fund UNRWA, that entire operation is blocked,” says De Domenico, whose office currently has 11 staff members in Gaza.

With such a large number of local staff in a territory controlled by a terror organization, Hamas’s infiltration into the agency was inevitable, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

De Domenico notes that the salaries of the local UNRWA staffers are on a far lower pay scale than those received by employees recruited by other agencies, so switching to another agency would cost a lot more money, which donor countries are not likely interested in spending.

The fastest way to switch to a new agency instead of UNRWA would be by using the same local staff, which would likely be a non-starter for supporters of the move, who fear those employees are tainted by Hamas. However, building an agency from scratch while barring involvement from anyone ever involved in UNRWA will take “considerably more time,” De Domenico says. “In the short term, it seems like a gigantic effort that is very unlikely to [succeed].”

The senior UN official explains that ending UNRWA’s mandate would make the conflict’s parties liable for distributing aid to Gaza’s two million-plus civilians.

This includes Hamas, but De Domenico stresses that the terror group has long lost control of the Strip to Israel.

Troops of the Yahalom combat engineering unit lower a camera into a tunnel shaft they dug in the courtyard of UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters, to reach a Hamas underground electrical room, January 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Israel “doesn’t understand that we are actually trying to help them meet their obligations as a party of the conflict. It’s an obligation of international humanitarian law for the occupying power to take care of the civilians that they occupy,” De Domenico charges.

Jerusalem argues that it is facilitating the entry of enough aid into Gaza and that the bottlenecks are due to the UN’s ability to keep up with the pace. Moreover, it claims that Hamas is diverting aid from civilians to its fighters.

“We hear [Israel say] that the aid is diverted to Hamas and that Hamas is in control. No! What we are seeing on the ground is that no one is in control at the moment, and that’s a big problem,” De Domenico says.

The senior OCHA official acknowledges that the UN “might be forced” into a new framework for distributing aid in place of UNRWA “because only so much is in our control.”

Palestinians demonstrate in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), January 30, 2024. (AFP)

But this will require “a gigantic effort from our side and a serious commitment, particularly from the Israelis, to allow us to scale up operations.”

He pointed to repeated Israeli rejections of requests for his office to be allowed to bring armored vehicles, personal protective equipment and radio communications into Gaza in order to ensure the safe and swift distribution of aid.

Israel says it only rejects requests for items on security grounds, particularly supplies that it feels can be stolen and exploited by Hamas.

“Some of their concerns are serious, and I totally understand them… But some of their other concerns seem more fictitious and intended simply to slow down our operation all while they continue to say, ‘Keep up the pace.'” he charged. “You break my leg, and then you asked me to run. We’ll try, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Also in the interview, the senior UN official said his office has begun the earlier stages of an assessment mission in northern Gaza aimed at determining the conditions necessary to allow Palestinians to return to those areas.

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