Following the terrorism accusations, countries such as Germany have suspended payments to the aid organisation. The UNRWA spokesperson warns of the consequences, not only for Gaza.
taz: Ms. Touma, let's talk about the latest accusations against the United Nations aid agency for Palestinian refugees. 12 UNRWA employees are said to have been involved in the Hamas massacre on October 7. How is UNRWA responding to the allegations?
Juliette Touma: When the allegations emerged, we were the first to address them and issue a statement, before the media reports were published. The allegations came to our attention during a meeting between Israeli authorities and the UNRWA Commissioner-General on 18 January. When we received these very serious accusations, the Commissioner General verified this information. We were finally able to confirm that the 12 staff members allegedly involved in the horrific attack on Israel on October 7 were actually UNRWA employees. He then flew to New York, where he met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres. You informed him and some of our largest donors about these allegations. He called for an independent investigation by one of the UN's highest investigative bodies. And he decided to immediately terminate the contract of the employees in question.
Another figure says that around ten percent of UNRWA's 13,000 employees would be affiliated in some way with Hamas. Is that correct?
We learned about this accusation, which is also serious, through the media. When the Israeli authorities informed us about the 12 employees, they did not mention this number. Each year, UNRWA provides a list of all staff working for us across the region. So everywhere we operate, including Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In the West Bank and Gaza, we also sent the list to the Israeli government as the occupying power, among others, most recently in May 2023. UNRWA has never received a response from the Israeli government.
What results do you expect from the independent investigation?
At the moment we are focused on the survival of UNRWA. This is directly related to the survival of the people we help, including the two million in Gaza who depend on UNRWA.
He has been a press spokesperson for UNRWA based in Jordan since September 2022. Prior to that, he worked for the United Nations in various other capacities.
Germany, the United States and several other UNRWA donor countries have suspended their funding for the time being. What impact will this have?
Financial support goes directly to families. Currently, more than a million people in Gaza seek protection in our facilities. We coordinate the few trucks that bring relief supplies to Gaza. We distribute food and medicine. We deploy mobile medical teams to care for pregnant women and elderly people. Offer psychological counseling. In short, we are the largest humanitarian actor in Gaza. If funding fails, the lives of 2 million people in Gaza will be at risk. Without financial support, children in Jordan, Syria and the West Bank are also deprived of their education. UNRWA contributes to stability in a tinderbox. It is currently on fire.
You were recently in Gaza. What is the situation on site?
I just returned, it was my second visit since the start of the war. It is an overwhelming situation. Most people are displaced. Specifically, this means that they are forced to abandon their shelters again and again. Some of them have fled up to ten times in recent months and are still not safe. Most have fled to Rafah. According to our estimates, the population there is six times larger than before the war. Rafah is one of the poorest cities in Gaza and is extremely overcrowded. It is a sea of people crowding into every free space they can find: on the beach, on the border with Egypt, in the middle of the street. Our emergency shelters are extremely overcrowded. People have started building small huts covered only with plastic sheets. The level of desperation is very great.
What do local people tell you?
Most are on a kind of autopilot, in survival mode. They mainly focus on finding food, water and a place to stay. Some sleep in cars, others in the sand, others on cement. There is no safe place in Gaza. People are still shocked by the scale and speed of the war.
More than half of the Gaza Strip has been destroyed. What role does UNRWA play in reconstruction and recovery work?
We do not deal with the recovery of bodies. When it comes to reconstruction, we have taken an active role in previous wars. At the moment we focus on humanitarian aid.
What do you expect from the international community?
We have recorded more than 240 attacks on our facilities, including schools, since the beginning of this war. There must be an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. There are no winners in this war. There is only sadness, loss, more destruction, more deaths. There should also be more humanitarian deliveries. Countries that have suspended UNRWA funding should reconsider. The lives of millions of people depend on it.
Earlier this week, images emerged of an aid truck in Gaza that appeared to have been attacked by Israel. What happened?
Israel is trying to prevent access to the few aid items that UNRWA wants to bring to the Gaza Strip. The risk of famine is extremely high. This is the third time an aid transporter has been attacked.
What expectations do you have from Germany?
Germany is one of the most generous donor countries to UNRWA's work on behalf of the Palestinian people. He also participates in our on-site work. Thanks to Germany, we can educate children in schools and respond to crises. Gaza is the worst and most vehement crisis. But the situation is also devastating in southern Lebanon, the West Bank and Syria. We hope that Germany will finance the aid organization again. Millions of people depend on this support.