The World needs to stand by UNRWA

After nearly four months of war, the situation in Gaza is catastrophic. More than 75 percent of the area’s population of more than two million are displaced. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed, many of them children. The United Nations warns that famine is imminent. Infectious diseases are spreading. The lack of health care is critical.

The main lifeline for Gazans in this landscape is the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, the nearly 75-year-old agency that is almost entirely funded by voluntary contributions. Now at least 17 countries, including the United States, plus the European Union have halted payments to UNRWA, pending an investigation, because of Israeli intelligence reports that a dozen of its workers took part in the terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

But now is exactly the wrong time to halt funding for UNRWA. Norway is standing fast to our commitment to continue funding this crucial agency and to the Palestinian people. As the Norwegian foreign minister, I urge fellow donor countries to reflect on the wider consequences of cutting UNRWA off.

If these decisions are not reversed, we run a serious risk of worsening the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza. And since UNRWA also supports millions of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, a stop to payments could further destabilize an already extremely volatile region.

The world should keep funding UNRWA on more than practical grounds, however. We should not collectively punish millions of people for the alleged deeds of a few.

Norway, like other donor countries, is appalled by the allegations that 12 of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff in Gaza were involved in the terror attack against Israel, an attack that we have condemned in the strongest possible terms. There must be zero tolerance for any such actions. We therefore welcome UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini’s response in dismissing the accused individuals and starting an investigation. Norway expects full transparency. If the allegations are verified, those involved in the attack must be held accountable.

But suspending the funding to a key U.N. agency over the alleged conduct of 12 employees is not the answer. If some members of a police department committed a crime, one would hold those individuals to account, not disband the entire police force. We must distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for.

Since UNRWA was established in 1949, it has provided basic services, education, shelters, camp infrastructure and emergency assistance to people who fled or were expelled from their homes in the 1948 war that followed the establishment of Israel. At that time, the refugee population was about 750,000. Today, four generations later, some 5.9 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services across the region.

Since this war began, UNRWA’s staff members in Gaza, who are mostly locally hired, have continued performing relief services under extreme conditions and at a daily risk to their own lives. They, like so many others, have paid a heavy price: Since Oct. 7, more than 150 UNRWA employees have been killed.

A relatively small country, Norway is one of the top donors to UNRWA, last year committing $45 million — an amount still far less than the United States. Norway has made the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians a priority since negotiations leading to the first Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was signed in 1993. For the past 30 years, Norway has chaired an international donor group for Palestine focusing on supporting the establishment of Palestinian institutions, which is key for establishing a Palestinian state.

Nearly six million Palestinians did not choose to live their lives as refugees. I am convinced that they, like the rest of us, would prefer a life in a country they could call their own. The question of the fate of Palestinian refugees is at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, yet 75 years later a political solution remains elusive. A fair and just resolution will be an essential prerequisite for peace and the two-state solution, for Israel as much as for the Palestinians.

UNRWA is a lot more than a humanitarian organization. It represents a commitment by the international community to Palestinian refugees. Its operations are also critical for the presence of other humanitarian organizations in Gaza

We need more, not less, humanitarian access to war-torn Gaza. In fact, in the ongoing conversations about a possible agreement to release remaining Israeli hostages combined with a sustained cessation of hostilities, improved humanitarian access is a key issue. For the latter to be successful, we need people on the ground who are able to deliver. Replacing UNRWA’s extensive support infrastructure with alternative channels, as UNRWA’s critics have suggested, would take too much time.

Therefore, I say to my fellow donors: We need to demand transparency and accountability from UNRWA. But the people of Gaza and Palestinian refugees across the Middle East should not pay the price for the transgressions of individuals. We cannot abandon the Palestinian people now.