Interview

Senior UN official: US proposal to fund other agencies instead of UNRWA not viable

OCHA head in Palestinian territories tells ToI dismantling aid organization, some of whose members are accused of ties to terror, would lead to humanitarian disaster

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

Palestinian men and children gather for a demonstration in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 30, 2024, calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. (AFP)
Palestinian men and children gather for a demonstration in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 30, 2024, calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. (AFP)

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

Calls to dismantle the United Nations Relief and Works Agency have mounted following UNRWA’s January announcement that it had fired or suspended 12 employees who allegedly participated in Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught against Israel. The announcement, alongside reports of Israeli intel on many more employees with ties to terror groups, led the US along with over a dozen other countries to suspend their funding as they demanded an investigation.

UNRWA says the funding halt 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, told 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,” argued the branch head of OCHA, which coordinates humanitarian work 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,” said De Domenico, whose office currently has 11 staff members in Gaza.

With such large numbers 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 noted that the salaries of the local UNRWA staffers were 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 were 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 a change, who would fear those employees were tainted by terror ties. However, building an agency from scratch while barring involvement from anyone ever involved in UNRWA will take “considerably more time,” De Domenico said. “In the short term, it seems like a gigantic effort that is very unlikely to [succeed].”

The senior UN official explained that ending UNRWA’s mandate would make the conflict’s parties liable for distributing aid to Gaza’s over 2 million civilians.

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 said.

A worker rests as displaced Palestinians receive food aid at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024. (Photo by AFP)

Jerusalem argues that it is facilitating the entry of enough aid into Gaza and that the bottlenecks are due to an inability of the UN 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 argued.

The senior OCHA official acknowledged 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.”

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.”

Displaced Palestinians receive food aid at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024. (AFP)

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.

Since the beginning of the current war between Israel and Hamas, a humanitarian crisis has broken out in the Gaza Strip, leaving over a million Palestinians displaced, many of whom are not receiving adequate access to basic needs.

The war broke out following Hamas’s massacre on October 7, which saw some 3,000 terrorists infiltrate Israel under a barrage of rockets, killing about 1,200 people and taking approximately 250 hostages.

The ensuing Israeli offensive on Hamas has killed over 27,900 Palestinians, according to the health ministry in Gaza run by the terror organization. These numbers cannot be independently verified and are believed to include over 10,000 members of Hamas’s military wing who were killed in battle and Gazans killed by misfired rockets.

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