UNRWA: In Anticipation of a Double Collapse

There is a looming infrastructural collapse of parts of UNRWA, the UN’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees. Such a collapse could bring down the Palestinian Authority (PA) in its wake. That would be a catastrophe for the situation on the occupied West Bank.

A view of Aida refugee camp. The camp, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, was built in 1950 by UNRWA. Photo: Issam Rimawi / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On the Israeli-occupied West Bank, things are going from bad to worse. The two-state solution has become a near-impossible vision, violence is rising and Palestinian desperation is becoming ever more obvious.

In Israel, the most extreme forces are in charge. These forces are opposed to dividing up the country and both Israeli settlers and the Israeli army are resorting to increasing levels of violence, destroying Palestinian homes and expanding settlements. Such expansions take place even while the Gaza war is taking place.

In this explosive situation, one of the most important structures for maintaining a minimum level of welfare for Palestinians, UNRWA, is in danger of collapse. The collapse of UNRWA could have catastrophic repercussions that could trigger the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

UNRWA in crisis

The UN’s relief organisation for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, was established in 1949 with the aim of assisting Palestinian refugees in anticipation of a political solution. Seventy-five years ago, 750,000 refugees had been displaced from what became the state of Israel.

Today, there are estimated to be 5.8 million refugees. Their political situation remains unresolved. On the West Bank alone, there are almost 900,000 registered refugees. Many of these refugees – the poorest – live in extremely deprived conditions in 19 refugee camps. UNRWA ensures that they have access to primary and lower-secondary education and very basic health services. UNRWA is also responsible for running refuse collections in the camps and provides subsistence payments to the very poorest refugees.

For many years, the UNRWA has struggled with a deficit, as its budgetary needs outstrip what donors are willing to supply. Over recent decades, the consequences of this deficit have been that UNRWA has been forced to make further cutbacks each year. These cuts have helped the organisation to survive, but they have had a major impact and the quality of its services is declining. School classes may have up to 50 pupils in each class. New teachers are now employed only on nine-month contracts, in order to save money. Several people I have spoken to within UNRWA describe this situation as a ‘negative investment’: it costs money to train new teachers, but as soon as they achieve the necessary levels of competence, their contracts end and UNRWA has to find replacements for the next school year. Refuse trucks, computers and other equipment are long past their use-by dates.

The infrastructural collapse of parts of UNRWA, the UN’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees, is only a matter of time.

UNRWA is trying desperately to get donors to make good its deficit. This is easier said than done. Prices are rising all around the world, other crises are directing attention away from the Middle East, and Palestine is under a cloud of donor fatigue. All the years of cutbacks also mean that there is a potentially enormous bill to remedy things that have fallen into disrepair. Since Palestinian needs are increasing, a so-called zero-growth budget – which today is seen as the best one can hope for – in reality will force UNRWA to make further cutbacks, and the quality of what it can offer will decline even further.

The West Bank on the brink

Of the five areas in which UNRWA operates, the donor community has indicated that no further cuts can be made in Syria, Lebanon, or Gaza, because these areas are already swamped by existing crises. Compared with these three areas, the occupied West Bank may appear semi-functional. The problem with this logic is that both UNRWA and the situation on the West Bank are worn so thin that any cuts to UNRWA could be the last straw in a desperate situation.

There is an imminent danger that UNRWA will not have enough money to pay its staff by November. This would affect 3,700 employees on the West Bank alone. It is difficult to arrive at a precise figure, but one estimate suggests that each of these employees provides for an average of six people. If UNRWA runs out of money, this means that around 20,000 people will lose access to wages on which they are dependent. Thousands will lose access to health services and 46,000 pupils will have no school to attend.

And remember, we are only talking about the West Bank. The situation is a recipe for chaos and human tragedy.

In its most recent report, the International Crisis Group concluded that it would be far better (and cheaper) for the global community to save UNRWA now than to pay to sort out the situation after its collapse. Many see the meetings held in connection with the UN General Assembly in late September as the last chance to put together enough money to fund this year’s budget. Some more money came in, but not enough. The current Gaza war has led to some donor mobilization, but this will be directed at Gaza.

Negative repercussions

If donor fatigue trumps understanding the urgency of UNRWA’s needs and the organisation for all practical purposes collapses, there will be serious repercussions. If the Palestinian Authority was robust and enjoyed popular trust, then perhaps we could imagine that it could succeed in damage limitation. But the PA is completely incapable of doing anything of the kind.

Confidence in the PA is worn, to put it mildly. Its budget is stretched far too thin, as is illustrated by the fact that it pays its employees only 80 percent of their wages. The PA has already lost control over many of the refugee camps in the West Bank. New and existing militant groups are filling the vacuum left by the PA, and increasingly the Israeli army is conducting incursions into the camps with widespread use of force. To add to this, much anger is directed at the PA over the war in Gaza since it is perceived as being to complicit in Israeli policy.

Already prior to the Gaza war 2023 was the most violent year in terms of Palestinian deaths on the West Bank since the second Intifada. The violence is being driven primarily by the Israeli army and extremist settlers, but mobilizations of militant forces within the camps are rising and out of the PA’s control. Accordingly, there is a real danger that the collapse of UNRWA could spark the collapse of the PA. This should not be a risk that the donor community is willing to take.

Ultimately the welfare of the Palestinians is the responsibility of the occupying Israeli authorities. The international community has given up on this premise, however. Instead of putting pressure on Israel to fulfil its obligations as an occupying power, or to end its occupation, further pressure is exerted on the Palestinians. The same applies to debates about Palestinian refugees. It is Israel that is preventing them from exercising their right of return, but rather than exerting pressure on Israel to achieve a political settlement, the international community has pursued a humanitarian solution that operates at a bare minimum.

Now there is a risk that even that solution will collapse. This is both a high-risk strategy and a human tragedy.

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