Who is Sigrid Kaag, the UN's new Gaza aid coordinator?

Sigrid Kaag, a former Dutch lawmaker, is taking on an immensely challenging job: ensuring international humanitarian aid reaches the people of Gaza as fast as possible.

West Asia expert Sigrid Kaag (pictured left)  has already spent many years working for the UN (photo: @Minister_FIN/X)
West Asia expert Sigrid Kaag (pictured left) has already spent many years working for the UN (photo: @Minister_FIN/X)


Sigrid Kaag is an experienced diplomat who has held numerous high-ranking positions within the United Nations. As of 8 January, the 62-year-old will serve as the UN's senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza.

Kaag and her team face a tremendous challenge. Even before Hamas' 7 October attacks on Israel, some 80% of Gazans depended on humanitarian aid. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is classified as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the EU, the US and several other governments.

Gaza relies on humanitarian aid

Israel's bombardments and its ground offensive have destroyed much of Gaza's infrastructure in almost three months of conflict. Fighting between Israel and Hamas has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people within the territory, which spans just 360 square kilometers (about 140 square miles).

Israel's army expects fighting to continue for several more months, meaning that almost all of Gaza's 2.3 million inhabitants could well depend on humanitarian aid over the coming year.

At the same time, Israel worries that international aid deliveries could be used to smuggle weapons, ammunition and fuel into the Gaza Strip that end up in the hands of Hamas.

In this difficult situation, Kaag is now tasked with coordinating and monitoring international emergency aid deliveries to Gaza and establishing a UN mechanism to speed up deliveries through countries not involved in the conflict.

It was only in late December that the UN Security Council managed to agree and adopt a resolution calling for "safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance at scale directly to the Palestinian civilian population throughout the Gaza Strip." It also paved the way for the creation of Kaag's new position as the UN's senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza.

Kaag returns to the UN

Kaag is one of the Netherlands' leading lawmakers. She is a member of the centrist D66 party and previously served as deputy head of government and finance and foreign minister under longtime Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

When the Dutch coalition government collapsed and fresh elections were called at the end of November 2023, Kaag announced her retirement from Dutch politics. Prior to this, Kaag and her family had received several threats, including from COVID deniers.

But her time-out did not last long. When Kaag takes up her UN post on January 8, she will be returning to her old place of work. The Arab studies graduate and mother of four has worked for the UN for decades, holding different high-ranking posts in the organization, as mentioned.

From 1994 to 1997, Kaag was the head of the Donor Relations Department at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in Jerusalem. She then headed UNICEF's Middle East and North Africa Regional Directorate in Amman, Jordan.

In 2013 and 2014, Kaag led the joint mission by the UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to destroy Syrian chemical weapons. Afterwards, she held the position of UN special coordinator for Lebanon.

Strong work ethic

Kaag is a certified Middle East expert who speaks six languages fluently, including Arabic. She is married to Anis al-Qaq, who once served as deputy minister for international cooperation at the Palestinian Authority under late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Afterwards, al-Qaq founded the International Forum for Peace, which aims to promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as Europeans and Mediterranean countries. It also works to implement cultural, economic and social development projects.

Kaag was praised by international diplomats for her work helping destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, which earned her the nickname "Iron Lady." One Syrian diplomat reportedly once told Agence France-Presse news agency that "she never stops working and practically never sleeps."

Israeli critics

Not everyone in Israel is pleased with Kaag's appointment. Various media outlets in the country reported that Kaag has repeatedly criticised Israeli policymaking. They said that when serving as the Netherlands' deputy prime minister, for example, Kaag disagreed with Rutte over what she alleged was his overly pro-Israel stance.

In the 1990s, Kaag accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of using "racist and demagogic overtones about the Palestinian peace partner" in peace talks, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. And she is said to have once referred to Israeli settlers as "illegal colonists on confiscated land."

Israel's relationship with the UN has been strained, and not just since UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' controversial October 2023 speech. Israel is critical of the UN due to a stable pro-Palestinian majority from the Global South in the General Assembly.

Kaag will have to employ much diplomatic persuasion to get more emergency aid flowing into Gaza. She is not likely to get much sleep on her new job, either.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines

Published: 30 Dec 2023, 1:08 PM