Switzerland upholds funding for UNRWA amid controversial initiative blockage

The upper house of the Swiss parliament on Thursday blocked an initiative to end the funding of the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) after aid groups voiced outrage.

Switzerland’s National Council, the lower house of the Federal Assembly, approved scrapping an annual contribution of 20 million Swiss francs ($23 million) to the agency by 116 to 78 votes on Monday.

On Thursday the upper house of parliament opted not to axe the agency’s funding by 23 to 21 votes, a decision that was warmly welcomed by UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini. Both houses would have needed to approve the initiative for it to go ahead.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a positive development,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva.

“It’s important that Switzerland continue to tell to the Palestinians and to the region that it remains committed to its humanitarian tradition… These 20 million are absolutely essential for URWA to continue to deliver its lifesaving and humanitarian assistance in the Gaza strip.”

Lazzarini, who said he had been disheartened by the initiative, said that cutting funds jeopardized UNRWA’s ability to provide aid to the people of Gaza. He had previously denounced what he called a deliberate attempt to strangle UNRWA’s operations.

The author of the Swiss legislative initiative, who was part of a parliamentary delegation that visited UNRWA earlier this year, has argued that the agency lacked objectivity.

Weeks of Israeli bombing, in response to a deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants, have internally displaced 85 percent of Gaza’s population. More than 130 UNRWA staff have also been killed since the start of the conflict on Oct. 7.

Established in 1949 following the first Arab-Israeli war, UNRWA provides services including schooling, primary healthcare and humanitarian aid in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

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