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Unrwa asks Turkey to help find funding to keep Gaza relief efforts alive

Under-fire UN agency for Palestinian refugees to open new office in Ankara, sources tell MEE
Philippe Lazzarini at the United Nations offices in Geneva, on 30 April (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)
Philippe Lazzarini at the United Nations offices in Geneva, on 30 April (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

The United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees, Unrwa, has asked Turkey to mobilise regional and Islamic countries to fill a critical funding gap, and to permit the establishment of a political office in Ankara.

Unrwa, which is the largest organisation delivering aid in the wartorn Gaza Strip, is facing a looming financial crisis. Unproven Israeli allegations that a dozen Unrwa staff members participated in the 7 October Hamas-led attack prompted several western countries to pull funding for the agency.

Though many have since resumed funding, key backers the United States and the United Kingdom have not.

Philippe Lazzarini, Unrwa commissioner-general, met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday.

Following the meeting, Erdogan ordered senior Turkish officials to increase Turkey’s financial support and to encourage neighbouring countries to contribute more significantly, according to sources close to the discussions.  

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“We have a shortfall of $180m for our core activities, which are primarily for our workforce, the 30,000 staff providing education, primary health across the region, not only in Gaza, and the West Bank but also in Jordan and Syria,” Lazzarini told a group of journalists in Ankara after his meeting with Erdogan. “We need to fill this gap.”

Lazzarini said even though the agency’s core operations are somewhat funded, the emergency allocation for the exceptional circumstances in Gaza was very lacking crucial money.

He suggested Turkey could play a role in lobbying countries in the Middle East and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to step in and help support Unrwa. 

Israeli officials say Unrwa needs to be totally dismantled, which would likely precipitate a collapse in aid services across Palestine and countries such as Lebanon and Jordan that host Palestinian refugees.

Lazzarini said he hoped Turkey could voice its support for Unrwa on the international stage to help fend off this pressure. 

A source familiar with Erdogan and Lazzarini’s talks told MEE that the president instructed his officials to issue a permit to establish a political office in Ankara to coordinate more donations to the agency.

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“The OIC countries unfortunately barely represent $100m for the agency’s funding and we would like Turkey to help us to convince regional countries to donate more,” the source said.

“We also expect more funding from Turkey as president promised.”

Lazzarini said Turkey has been a reliable partner, annually granting $10m to Unrwa’s core operations but also donating $10m-15m worth of food to the organisation.

Middle East Eye reported in March that the US encouraged Turkey to provide additional donations to Unrwa during high-level diplomatic talks earlier this year, despite pausing its own funding to the agency.

Lazzarini confirmed the report and said the Biden administration asked all main donor countries to increase funding for the agency, citing a US law that bans Washington from donating to it until next year.

On Sunday, Unrwa reported that a total of 193 members of its staff had been killed in Gaza.

Lazzarini said the agency has submitted requests for investigation to Israel after every documented case of a slain Unrwa employee. “But I’m not aware of any response from the Israeli authorities,” he said.

He added that he proposed two weeks ago an independent body to investigate each incident.

“I would say blatant disregard of the United Nations, whether its staff, its premises, its operation, does not become the new standard, and anyone responsible be made accountable,” he said.

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