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UNRWA chief hopes Switzerland will resume support

Updated at 26 Mar 2024 2:10 pm

The director of the Palestinian relief organization UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, has been heard by foreign policy experts from the National Council in Geneva. He hopes that Switzerland and the EU will resume their support for the aid organization, Lazzarini told the media afterwards.

"It is important that Switzerland continues to be the partner it has always been," the Director of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) told media representatives. There has been a partnership for decades.

On Tuesday, Lazzarini held an hour-long discussion with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council (FAC-N). The president of the committee, Laurent Wehrli (FDP/VD), expressed his satisfaction. "The aim was to be able to talk to each other directly and without filters," he told the Keystone-SDA news agency.

The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) has suspended its annual contribution of CHF 20 million following allegations that twelve UNRWA employees were involved in the massacre in Israel on October 7. The FDFA is awaiting the final report on UNRWA, which has been announced for April 20.

An investigation has also been launched into employees who are allegedly members of the Islamist Hamas. This should also decide whether or not payments from Switzerland will be resumed. The Commissioner General of UNRWA explained this procedure to the members of the APK-N.

Financing secured until the end of May

Several parliamentarians said that they wanted to wait for the results. The APK-N has not planned a vote or recommendation after the hearing. The Federal Council will then make a proposal that will be submitted for consultation to the Foreign Affairs Committees of the National Council and the Council of States.

Since December, humanitarian organizations in the Middle East can only be supported after such a procedure. Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) called on Switzerland to resume their funding from April.

In view of the humanitarian emergency, Wehrli believes that the Federal Council could proceed in two stages, especially if the UNRWA report is delayed. The government "could come up with a proposal for emergency aid in Gaza as early as April", he said. In his opinion, questions relating to the financing of the training of Palestinians by UNRWA in several countries could be clarified afterwards.

Lazzarini said he also explained to the parliamentarians the reasons for smear campaigns against his agency, which were not necessarily related to its presence in Gaza. He also recalled that certain UNRWA activities are seen as a "threat" by Hamas because they prioritize human rights.

According to the director, the situation is less dramatic today than it was a month ago. UNRWA's funding is secured until the end of May. The employees' salaries could be paid in March and April.

USA will not help for at least a year

The European Commission has resumed its support, as have the Nordic countries, Canada and Australia. Some European countries have even increased their contributions in view of the agency's difficulties. The Gulf States also support UNRWA.

The problem is that the USA, as the largest donor, has frozen its aid until March 2025. At the same time, they called on the others to make efforts to ensure that the UN agency can continue its work. "We will have to mobilize even more countries," said Lazzarini. The loss of the USA poses an existential threat to UNRWA.

A few days ago, Lazzarini was denied access to the Gaza Strip without receiving an explanation from Israel. In addition, Israel no longer allows UNRWA to distribute aid in the north of the territory. Tens of thousands of people in this part of the Gaza Strip are still dependent on aid.

Several people have already died due to the lack of food. According to Lazzarini, the aid is "completely inadequate compared to the immense need". More than half of the population is not sufficiently supplied with food.

Lazzarini also stressed to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council in Geneva that the dissolution of UNRWA would have catastrophic consequences for the civilian population and that no other humanitarian organization could currently take on the tasks of the aid agency, particularly in the areas of education and health, according to a statement.

©Keystone/SDA

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