INTERVIEW: UNRWA against the odds

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 15 Feb 2024

UNRWA Director of External Relations and Communications Tamara Al-Rifai explains the steps the agency is taking at an exceptionally challenging moment in its history to Al-Ahram weekly.

UNRWA against the odds
(photo: AFP)


At a time when an Israeli offensive against Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip is expected daily, teams working for the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA are particularly anxious about its possible consequences, especially those working in Gaza which has been under Israeli military attack since 7 October.

UNRWA has been helping the Palestinians to survive for 75 years and is now having a tough time securing sufficient humanitarian aid to carry on its work in Gaza and secure shelter for the population that has been forced into Rafah.

It is also having to deal with the accusations levelled by Israel that 12 of its local staff working in Gaza were associated with the Hamas operation against Israeli targets that took place on 7 October.

To make things worse, there are growing fears that the present international outcry will not stop Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from ordering a ground offensive against Rafah, something that has been described by world leaders like UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini as “a gigantic tragedy” and “an apocalyptic situation” in the making.


“Currently, Rafah is housing over one and half million Palestinians. But Rafah is a city that is designed to house 280,000 people,” said Tamara Al-Rifai, UNRWA director for External Relations and Communications in an interview with Al-AhramWeekly.

Speaking from her office in Jordan, Al-Rifai, who has repeatedly communicated UNRWA’s position since the beginning of the war, could not have sounded more pressured or more apprehensive.

“It is really a very difficult situation. Rafah is packed with people who have had to move first from the north of Gaza to the middle and then to this southernmost point of Gaza,” Al-Rifai said. “And it has all happened as a result of the Israeli eviction orders.”

The key destination for these Gaza residents has been the UNRWA shelters, of which there are 150 across Gaza. “It has put an enormous pressure on the UNRWA shelters, and today it is essentially the shelters in Rafah that are there to house people,” Al-Rifai said.

She added that with the inability of the Rafah shelters to provide space for all those who have had to drift south, inevitably people have had to camp outside the UNRWA shelters.

Ordinarily, UNRWA is only responsible for those who are housed inside its shelters. However, Al-Rifai said it was impossible not to reach out to the hundreds of thousands who cannot find space inside the shelters.

“It is a very tough situation for everyone, but at least those in the shelters are not in as bad a situation as those outside,” she said.

Al-Rifai added that it is unthinkable for UNRWA to deny humanitarian aid based on whether or not they have found a space within the shelters. “We distribute everything that we manage to get, but the flow of humanitarian aid is not always predictable, and it is also inadequate in terms of quantity,” she said.

The insufficient flow of aid and relief material into Gaza, be it food, medicine or medical equipment, is something that has been noted by many concerned organisations. Repeated appeals and intense diplomatic attempts have been made to try to convince Israel to allow more aid trucks to enter Gaza, most from the Rafah Crossing with Egypt.

According to Al-Rifai, “on a good day,” UNRWA gets about 200 trucks into the Strip. “We have long called for the entry of 500 trucks, including from the Karm Abou Salem Port, and we have also called for the simplification of the process of getting the trucks in,” she said.

“The Rafah Crossing is not designed or equipped for the entry of trucks. It is designed for individuals. In the meantime, the use of Karm Abou Salem has not been maximised,” she argued.

She noted that in its recent instruction for provisional measures to be introduced in the war in Gaza, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) requested enabling humanitarian assistance to get into Gaza.

She added that there have also been repeated appeals for the resumption of the entry of commercial supplies into Gaza because this would allow those who can still afford to buy goods to find necessary commodities and consequently allow for more aid to go to those who cannot afford to buy.

Meanwhile, tensions are growing among Palestinians in Rafah, with continued Israeli threats to invade and Israeli strikes against the city. Alarmed observers have been strongly cautioning against an Israeli military offensive against Rafah, as this is the only place left for Palestinians to take shelter, even if under horrible conditions.

Israeli strikes on Rafah last Sunday killed close to 70 civilians and left many others wounded. The strikes left the entire half of the Gaza population currently camped out in Rafah terrified, with many inching closer to the border with Egypt.

There are question marks about what a possible full Israeli invasion of Rafah would mean for the entry of aid material. And there have been appeals by some within the international medical and aid communities to rush in humanitarian and relief material ahead of the looming invasion.

According to Al-Rifai, UNRWA “is already stretched to the maximum”.She said that without more trucks there is nothing that it can do to upgrade its relief operation in case of an Israeli offensive on the city.

UNRWA facilities across Gaza have been targeted by Israeli attacks, including on a guest house designed for international personnel. Over 150 UNRWA team members have also been killed since the war started over four months ago.

However, the agency has been trying to continue its operations to the maximum extent possible, and it has been avoiding the suspension of its operations in Gaza.

Such a decision would deprive the Palestinians of the only body that provides them with systematic and mostly stable relief, Al-Rifai argued. It would also deny other organisations that come to the rescue in Gaza the knowledge and the capacity that UNRWA has of local circumstances.

UNRWA was established in December 1949, a little over a year after the Palestinian Nakba of May 1948. In May 1950, the agency started to help the refugees in the Palestinian territories and neighbouring countries. Israel has had issues with the agency right from the start because it is the only body dedicated to a specific group of refugees, namely the Palestinians.

UNRWA’s operations are dependent on the funding of UN member states. Earlier this year, Israel claimed that some local UNRWA staff had been associated with the 7 October Hamas operation against Israeli targets. UNRWA immediately acted to end the contract of the staff in question and started an exhaustive investigation.

Despite the inconclusive nature of the allegations and the ongoing investigation, key donor states, including the US, have decided to suspend their contributions to the already insufficient UNRWA budget. This has come at a time when Israeli officials are pushing for UNRWA to be dissolved.

The decision by Guterres to assign a high-level independent committee to investigate the accusations and recruitment to UNRWA and the outcry within the UN and across the humanitarian community worldwide about the political motivations behind the claims have so far failed to convince some donors to reverse their decision to suspend their contributions.

“Suspending funding is not only going to influence our ability to work in Gaza, but it will also impact UNRWA’s operations in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan,” Al-Rifai said. She added that the work of UNRWA has been previously carefully scrutinised by other UN and world bodies to the extent that it is arguably “the most scrutinised UN agency.”

“We have shown enough goodwill to stick to our commitments as a principled UN agency,” Al-Rifai said. UNRWA staff sign a commitment to neutrality, and the entire agency is committed to the highest level of performance.

Guterres is expected to receive an interim report from the high-level independent investigation team in early March. By this time, UNRWA is hoping for the suspension decisions to be reversed, with a commitment “to work on strengthening the system if need be.”

“We are strongly appealing to [the donors] to undo the suspension [of their contributions] to allow for the continuation of operations,” Al-Rifai said. She added that now is not the moment to cause added disruptions to the operations of UNRWA, especially given the very volatile situation in Gaza that could have growing regional impacts.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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