Europe warned there is 'no substitute' for UNRWA

UN official Sigrid Kaag tells EU donors of 'very dire' humanitarian situation in Gaza

Aid agency UNRWA is the main vehicle for aid for displaced Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. EPA
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A UN official overseeing aid to Gaza has told donors in Europe there is “no substitute” for relief agency UNRWA, after several countries paused funding over alleged links to Hamas.

Sigrid Kaag, the UN’s humanitarian and reconstruction co-ordinator for Gaza, briefed the EU’s 27 foreign ministers on Monday on conditions in the strip she described as “very dire”.

The EU was struggling to come to a joint position on the crisis, with at least two countries, Spain and Ireland, pledging to continue funding UNRWA while others have suspended payments.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs representative, failed to get backing from all 27 countries for a warning to Israel not to aggravate the fighting in Rafah, at Gaza’s southern tip.

The funding halt to UNRWA, from countries including Germany and Austria, followed claims emerged that a small number of the agency’s staff were implicated in Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel.

Ms Kaag, a former foreign minister of the Netherlands, described the allegations as “horrible” as two separate investigation teams look into the claims under UN orders.

But it is “very clear, when you look at the ability of the international humanitarian community to deliver assistance in Gaza right now, there is no substitute for UNRWA’s role,” she said. “I have reiterated that today.”

Germany, one of UNRWA’s biggest donors, has said it will not approve new donations until it sees results from the UN’s investigations, while saying it is keeping up funding to other agencies such as the Red Cross.

Nuts and bolts

But Ireland’s Foreign Minister Micheal Martin described UNRWA as essential to any post-war peace plan, as European and Arab diplomats try to broker a ceasefire in the region.

“Any new government in Gaza, any new administration will require UNRWA to deliver the nuts and bolts of social services. It is the only organisation that has the reach and the bandwidth to do that,” he said.

Also coming to UNRWA’s defence is Spain, whose Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares Bueno called it an “indispensable UN body” in caring for Palestinian refugees.

Ireland and Spain last week wrote jointly to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen urging her to review the EU’s trade ties with Israel in light of alleged human rights violations by its military.

Israel’s actions in Gaza are under scrutiny before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which separately began reviewing its conduct in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem on Monday.

Ms Kaag joined several European ministers in warning against an Israeli escalation in Rafah, the last refuge for many Palestinians who followed instructions from Israel to move south.

She said looting of humanitarian aid, sometimes described as “self-distribution” by desperate civilians, was adding to difficulties in helping people in Gaza.

The UN “has been very clear that currently an extension of military operations in Rafah will have very dire humanitarian consequences for the innocent civilians that are there,” she said.

“There are more than a million people crammed in Rafah, it is not intended for a million people in shelters, in random plastic sheeted constructions. Health conditions are very worrisome.”

Updated: February 19, 2024, 5:29 PM