The War in Gaza: An Interview with UNRWA’s Jonathan Fowler

By: Cyrine Bettaieb

The tragic war situation that has been prevailing in Gaza since October 2023 comes together with a heavy cost that falls on innocent civilians. To understand better the situation that prevails in the region, I talked to Jonathan Fowler, Senior Communications Manager at The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Fowler told us more about the agency’s role in the region, the challenges it faces, the recent accusations it has been facing, and their impact on UNRWA’s funding and operations.

To begin, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your work with UNRWA? How long have you been involved with the agency and what are some of your key responsibilities?

My formal job title is the Senior Communications Manager at UNRWA. I have been in the United Nations (UN) for almost ten years. I am a former journalist, but I joined UNRWA in October 2023. This is not in any way related to the war in Gaza, it was just coincidental timing. I was working in Ukraine before for the UN and my contract in Ukraine was finishing in October, and I had already agreed with UNRWA when I was going to start. So I have been in UNRWA since just two weeks after the war in Gaza began. But it is pure coincidence.

What does your day-to-day work look like?

Well, a lot of it is making sue that we keep pace with what is happening because there is so much happening on the ground in Gaza. We try to be proactive in terms of getting the news of what UNRWA is doing.

We are also very reactive depending on what is going on. Also, because there are multiple narratives about this war, we may find ourselves pushed into a situation where we are asked to react to things which are completely untrue, misinformation and disinformation for example.

In other words, I am involved in the decision-making process to determine whether statements from Israeli authorities (ex. truck numbers) require a response from our humanitarian agency.”

A lot of what we do involves telling the truth and getting the record straight on what is actually happening. But we are also there because of our role as an organization to bear witness to what is going on, a sort of moral, humanitarian vision about the war in Gaza.

What is the primary role of UNRWA, particularly in regions like Gaza, and how does the agency endeavor to fulfill its mission amidst ongoing challenges?

We are one of the oldest agencies in the UN, and we were created for a very specific reason, which was to help deal with the refugee crisis caused by the Arab-Israeli War In the late 1940s. This is actually one of the reasons why we refer to “Palestine refugees” rather than “Palestinian refugees,” because originally our mandate concerned anybody who was forced from their homes as a result of that war. We were created in the autumn of 1949, and we became operational in 1950. Our primary role has been to alleviate the impacts of that refugee crisis, which is, the most protracted refugee crisis in modern history, with no just and lasting solution on the horizon, despite repeated attempts over the years.

What makes us very different from other parts of the UN systems is that we are a direct service provider. We provide kind of quasi-governmental public services for Palestine refugees. That is why, for example, education is such a core part of what UNRWA does, the way healthcare is.

This is also one of the reasons why we are one of the largest entities in the UN system. We have around 30,000 staff, the majority of whom are Palestinian themselves, and they are providing the kind of services that would be provided in many other places by governmental services. That is also another reason why we have a very different salary structure from other parts of the UN system.

We have 5 fields of operations: Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Our mission in Gaza now is essentially 100% humanitarian. We are not able to provide any education or anything like that anymore, and this is actually part of another important thing about UNRWA’s mandate: although our target community is always Palestine refugees, in cases like the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, people who are not registered refugees are also entitled to access our humanitarian services. 

We have this kind of “crisis-time humanitarian operations” approach. In cases like Syria, for example, our primary community that we are working with involves Palestine refugees living in Syria. Therefore, what we do varies, depending on the different needs, on the different reasons. In Jordan, for example, our work has much more to do with alleviating poverty.

Also important is our education system. We do not take people right through to university. We educate Palestine refugees up to the age of fourteen, and then normally they would move into the systems of the host authorities, the countries they live in.

In a nutshell, UNRWA’s work is about service provision, including medical care and cash assistance for people living in poverty.

UNRWA provides vital assistance to millions of refugees. How have recent funding cuts from partner nations affected your ability to deliver these essential services and support those who depend on your aid?

The financial aspect has meant that our operations across the region are at risk.

There was a very real risk when we first got hit by the accusations against staff: those concerned 12 people out of a total of 30,000 employees. That’s 0.04% of the total. Donor governments, for a number of reasons, decided to pause funding, but it looked like we would not be able to sustain any operations beyond the end of February 2024. We are talking about an absolute disaster in this region had that happened.

Donors have started to come back now; I am talking of countries such as Australia, Sweden, Canada… And gradually, that kind of guillotine got pushed and pushed beyond. But in the current situation, we are still not sure how sustainable our operation will be beyond the end of May.

Given the situation in this region, this isn’t just about UNRWA: this is also about the people we serve. We cannot be left in this kind of situation, because we have to have visibility. We are in the process of launching our own humanitarian appeal, because we need $1.2 billion to sustain operations for Gaza and the West Bank through to the end of this year, and there is not enough money in the pot for this.

Therefore, the big question is: what happens now? Donors have come back, but unfortunately, the big issue here is the United States, because of the vote in Congress to not give us any more funding until at least next year.

But this means that the visibility of funding and the sustainability of a humanitarian operation amid an enormous crisis, a devastatingly huge crisis, we’re in the dark beyond the month of May.

That is a sort of general illustration of the challenges and the risks of operations that we face across the region and what that means for kids education in camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Those are other very important issues.

What are the primary challenges UNRWA currently faces on a day-to-day basis, and how do these affect your ability to serve those in need?

The nature of the war in Gaza means is immensely challenging for any humanitarian organization active on the ground. This is the most serious, deadliest, most devastating crisis, not only in the history of the Gaza Strip but in the whole region, which has seen multiple escalations over the years.

The primary challenge is getting humanitarian aid in and getting it to people who need it. We have over 1,000,000 people living in our shelters in the Gaza Strip. The shelters are mostly school buildings that were turned into emergency accommodations. We are talking about people living in classrooms, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, hundreds of people sharing one toilet. These are schools; they are not shelter facilities. 

We had contingency plans in the event of an escalation, and the number of people in our shelters is far, far higher than anything that we had planned for, because nobody expected this scale of war. That is the primary challenge. The number of people is one thing; the mass levels of displacement another one equally as important, but then also another huge challenge is getting financial and logistical aid around the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli authorities have banned UNRWA from taking aid to the north of the Gaza Strip, where there are 300,000 people trapped. Of the 1,000,000 persons in our shelters, and then overall, we are helping around 1.7 million people. But 300,000 of these are in kind of inaccessible area where we are not allowed to take food aid, nor any kind of aid.

We are the largest humanitarian agency operating on the ground in Gaza because we were already there. We had 13,000 staff operating before the start of the war, mostly in the education sector. Around 3,500 of our staff are able to continue doing their jobs; for the most part, these are people doing things like logistics and supply. But because of the size of our preexisting network and our logistics warehouses, other humanitarians from the UN system and other NGOs rely on our network to do their jobs. What I mean to say is that the challenge is not just for us, it goes beyond us: any challenge faced by UNRWA also becomes a challenge for other parts of the UN and for other NGOs, so it seriously affects our ability to serve those in desperate need.

In light of the recent report indicating that at least 182 UNRWA staff were killed and 164 installations damaged since the onset of the conflict, the highest in UN history, can you discuss the broader, perhaps untold impact of these losses on UNRWA and its mission?

In total, almost 200 humanitarians have been killed in this war. This is without doubt the deadliest place in the world to be for an aid worker.

This is an unacceptable toll: almost all of it is affecting local staff, and Palestinians themselves. Most of them have been killed along with their families: they are paying the same price as the rest of their communities. We have had a number of staff who have been killed in the line of duty. There was a tragic incident in Rafah at one of our distribution centers in March, where one staff member was killed and then another later died of his injuries.

We have over 160 installations damaged. We have had almost 350 separate incidents of damage. Sometimes this is [from] direct strikes, some other times it is impacts from strikes nearby. We have had a convoy hit by naval gunfire. We have also had over 400 people that were sheltering in our facilities killed, and over 1400 injured.

There is no mystery about where our locations are, because we share coordinates with all authorities. This is a standard procedure for the UN. These are UN facilities under the UN flag, and under international humanitarian law, they are meant to be protected. There is no doubt about that at all.

The impact here is unprecedented for the UN system. We are talking about people who have served the agency for many years, wholeheartedly, delivering the promise of what the UN system is meant to be about.

The psychological impact also on staff and on their families is absolutely enormous. It is cutting to the heart of the agency losing this many people.

Regarding the allegations of involvement in the attack of October 7 against 12 UNRWA employees, followed by donor reevaluation of funding, how has this affected UNRWA’s operations and the communities you serve?

The accusations have never been substantiated. We have always been very clear about condemning the October 7th attacks.

But these remain allegations, and we are talking about allegations against a total of twelve people. We do not minimize the nature of these allegations, of course, but we say that these remain allegations not substantiated, and you do not then turn around and say an entire organization of 30,000 people is somehow “infected” by Hamas. We heard that kind of rhetoric, that kind of misinformation where senior officials, including in the Israeli Government, were saying that everybody in UNRWA is in Hamas!

The problem with that kind of rhetoric is that it is very damaging reputationally. But we also have to spend a lot of time pushing back on things like this, and you still get journalists coming to you saying things like “there are 6000 Hamas members who were in UNRWA,” based on nothing.

We do not even know where these accusations come from, and so, there is an element always of having to be super careful about what could come next in terms of false accusations. There is an independent investigation into these allegations that is being organized by the UN Office for Internal Oversight Services, an organism independent of UNRWA. There is also a separate thing which was already commissioned by UNRWA’s leadership before these accusations came out, and that is the Independent review board, led by Catherine Colonna, the former French Foreign Minister: this body is looking into how robust is UNRWA’s neutrality framework, because, like any UN entity, we have an obligation to be neutral and impartial.

We have investigative procedures internally that apply to people if they break neutrality, and that is a fact of life in UNRWA. But we still felt that there was a need for somebody to come independently and check whether the framework that we have in place is strong enough to ensure that these kinds of accusations do not keep coming up. Reputational damage also puts our staff at risk.

Staff in Gaza have been painted as if they were all part of an armed group. Then what happens when they have encounters with the Israeli authorities or with the Israeli military? You hear all kinds of reports that some staff have been detained. They have been mistreated in custody. But how much of that is because of accusations? It is not possible to say.

Of course, in the past, we found that some people had broken neutrality rules. That said, in such situations, there is a range of disciplinary measures, and it includes firing people if needed. There was a case several years ago, where it turned out that one of the people in our school system was running for elections to Hamas: that guy was fired because that is a breach of our rules. 

We have our own internal mechanisms, but the problem is there is this idea that we have this sort of monolith of staff who are all somehow bad… that is terrible, because it is dangerous for them, and because we are seeing the impact on the ground.

The accusations against UNRWA staff emerged during a critical time for Israel on the international stage following the ICJ hearing. In your view, is there a connection between the timing of these accusations and the broader geopolitical context?

You can draw your own conclusions. There are people who have said this was not coincidental. I cannot say, of course, whether this happened because of the ICJ hearing. But what Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini has said on the record, and he wrote to the President of the General Assembly of the UN in February, is that he listed a number of measures being taken to dismantle UNRWA because there are people who believe that UNRWA’s mandate is the problem now.

It is as if this war had potentially created an opportunity to turn up the dial. For example, we have seen blocking of bank accounts, restrictions on visas, myself included. We normally get a twelve-month visa, but I only get two months. All these kinds of measures mean to make our work difficult; our staff from the West Bank cannot come to the office in East Jerusalem. 

Afterwards, regarding the timing of why the accusations came out in January, that is speculation. But there is certainly, clearly, a context of trying to dismantle our mandate. And so, throwing accusations around many things that we see, is all part of that overall campaign to end our operations in Gaza. Philippe Lazzarini has talked about a coordinated campaign against us. That is no mystery there.

Could you provide an update on the initial findings of the investigation into the allegations against the twelve suspended employees?

The normal procedure inside UNRWA is an investigation of that accusation that can be followed by sanctions, which make you lose your salary, or be fired.

Now, in this very specific circumstance, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, like the head of any UN agency, has the executive authority to reverse the process: he can take steps in order to ensure that the agency is able to continue delivering its mandate. Accusations can lead to immediate action by the Commissioner General under executive authority, and this has happened in other parts of the UN as well in the past. But otherwise, the normal procedure is that there will be an investigation led and sanctions adopted if someone is found guilty, though we do not have a police force or anything like that.

Something we also often forget about is that, within UNRWA, we are one of the most scrutinized parts of the UN system. Every six months, we share the names of our staff, all our staff, with the host authorities: in this case, this means Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority and Israel, as the occupying power, for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That way, there is no mystery about who works for us.

In any case, we never had any feedback from the Israeli authorities about supposed people involved in these events. So that opens another question: why is this coming out now? Again, that is not to minimize the nature of the allegations. But it is legitimate to ask this question.

To conclude, what message would you like to share with our audience, possibly emphasizing the importance of supporting UNRWA’s mission?

Anybody who cares about what is happening in Gaza, the humanitarian tragedy, the man-made famine, and anybody who cares about trying to stop this from happening, needs to remember that the primary part of the UN system, the body which tries to put an end to this situation and to alleviate its impacts, is UNRWA.

Therefore, and I am not begging here for money or anything alike, anything that people can do to advocate for continued support for our agency and for the cause that we serve is absolutely critical. Individual donations, those kinds of things, are important; but really, it is also about spotlighting the fact that what we are trying to do is to end this absolute tragedy. And to end it now.

This interview was conducted by Cyrine Bettaieb, originally from Tunisia, she is a graduate of Political Science and International Studies from Saint Louis University Madrid with an interest in MENA politics and migration, and is currently employed at an NGO in France.

To quote this article or video, please use the following reference: Bettaieb (2024), “The War in Gaza: An Interview with UNRWA’s Jonathan Fowler,”

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