Top Palestinian officials and Hamas have criticised the decision by nearly a dozen Western countries to suspend funding to the United Nations relief agency for Palestinians and called for an immediate reversal of the move, which entails “great” risk.
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) earlier said it had opened an investigation after Israel alleged that some of its employees were involved in the October 7 attacks that triggered the current conflict.
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This has prompted at least 10 Western countries to withdraw or temporarily pause funding to the agency, a move the head of UNRWA called “shocking”.
“Suspension of funds threatens humanitarian work in the region, especially in Gaza,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement late on Saturday, urging countries who have frozen funding to “reconsider their decisions” as Gaza faces the risk of mass starvation.
Earlier, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary General Hussein al-Sheikh said the countries’ decision “entails great political and humanitarian relief risks”.
“At this particular time and in light of the continuing aggression against the Palestinian people, we need the maximum support for this international organization and not stopping support and assistance to it,” he wrote on X, urging the countries to “immediately reverse their decision”.
We call on the countries that announced the cessation of their support for #UNRWA to immediately reverse their decision, which entails great political and humanitarian relief risks, as at this particular time and in light of the continuing aggression against the Palestinian… https://t.co/mxIam0zmZs
— حسين الشيخ Hussein AlSheikh (@HusseinSheikhpl) January 27, 2024
The United States, Australia, Canada, Italy, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Scotland have halted funding to the agency, whose facilities where displaced Palestinians sought shelter have been repeatedly attacked in Israeli air raids.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the 27-member bloc would “assess further steps and draw lessons based on the result of the full and comprehensive investigation”.
Ireland and Norway, however, expressed continued support for UNRWA, saying the agency does crucial work to help Palestinians displaced and in desperate need of assistance in Gaza.
Hamas on Saturday slammed Israeli “threats” against the agency, after Israel accused several UNRWA staff of involvement in Hamas’s October 7 attacks in southern Israel that the authorities there said killed about 1,140 people.
“We ask the UN and the international organisations to not cave into the threats and blackmail” from Israel, Hamas’s press office said in a post on Telegram.
On Friday, UNRWA said it had fired several employees and that it had opened an investigation into the allegations.
“The Israeli authorities have provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the horrific attacks on Israel on October 7,” Lazzarini said.
“To protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay.”
He did not disclose the number of employees nor the nature of their alleged involvement but said that “any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror” would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.
Soon after that on Friday, the US announced it was halting funding to UNRWA because of the allegations against what it said were 12 employees who “may have been involved” in the Hamas attack.
Canada’s International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen also said on Friday that Ottawa had “temporarily paused” additional funding while UNRWA conducts a thorough investigation.
On Saturday, the UK said it had joined the US in “temporarily pausing” future financial aid for UNRWA, which is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member countries.
“The UK is appalled by allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October attack against Israel, a heinous act of terrorism that the UK Government has repeatedly condemned,” the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said his country was joining its allies and cutting its support for the agency. “Allied countries have taken a similar decision. We are committed to providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinian population while protecting Israel’s security,” he posted on X.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong said she was “deeply concerned” by the allegations against UNRWA but welcomed the agency’s investigation. “We are speaking with partners and will temporarily pause disbursement of recent funding,” she wrote on X.
The Dutch minister for trade and development, Geoffrey van Leeuwen, announced a freeze in funding while the investigation is ongoing. “The accusation is that the attack was committed on October 7 with UN money, with our money,” he told public broadcaster NOS on Saturday.
Germany’s Foreign Office also paused funding, saying: “Until the end of the investigation, Germany, in coordination with other donor countries, will temporarily not approve any new funds for UNRWA in Gaza.”
‘Halting’ UNRWA’s activities
Israel has praised the countries that have halted their support to the UN agency, saying it wants to completely stop its operations after the war on Gaza has ended.
We have been warning for years: @UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a…
— ישראל כ”ץ Israel Katz (@Israel_katz) January 27, 2024
Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Israel “aims to promoting a policy ensuring that UNRWA will not be a part of the day after, addressing other contributing factors”.
“We will work to garner bipartisan support in the US, the European Union, and other nations globally for this policy aimed at halting UNRWA’s activities in Gaza,” he said.
UNRWA was founded in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to provide hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who were forcibly displaced with education, healthcare, social services and jobs. It started operations in 1950.
The cash-strapped agency today supports nearly 6 million Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, as well as in neighbouring Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
The agency’s shelters in Gaza have also been repeatedly targeted by Israeli missiles during the war, despite pleas for safe passages to deliver humanitarian aid.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pledged to conduct an “urgent and comprehensive independent review of UNRWA” in the aftermath of Israel’s allegations.
At least 26,257 people have been killed and 64,797 wounded in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7.