European nations make stand against pressure to cut UNRWA funding

Nations defy calls to suspend support for the UN agency, as Brussels asks for an external audit over allegations of Hamas infiltration

Members of UNRWA at work following an Israeli raid in Jenin camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Reuters
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A number of European countries on Monday took a stand against political pressure to cut UNRWA funding as controversy grows over the implication of some UN staff in Gaza in the October 7 attacks on Israel.

Spain and Luxembourg joined nations such as Norway in saying they would keep aid flowing to UNRWA, the UN agency that delivers essential services such as schooling and health care to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and across the Middle East.

However, this list is becoming increasingly dwarfed by that of the countries distancing themselves from UNRWA, including the organisation's largest donors, such as the US, Germany and Japan.

Their decision comes after the agency announced it had launched an investigation into claims made by Israeli authorities about the alleged involvement of several employees in the Hamas-led attacks.

The number of staff involved is claimed to be 12 out of 13,000 in Gaza.

Some countries have said they were merely pausing contributions until UNRWA's internal investigation was complete, while others, including Estonia, have announced they would no longer fund the organisation.

Israel's Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Monday said he had cancelled meetings with the agency's commissioner general Philippe Lazzarini and called on him to resign.

Mr Lazzarini has said suspending aid is akin to imposing sanctions on an entire community at a time of war and urged countries to reconsider.

A representative said the agency would not be able to continue operations in Gaza and across the region beyond the end of February if funding did not resume.

Some European leaders have stressed the important role played by UNRWA in delivering services to Palestinians as a reason not to cut funding.

Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares was quoted as saying during a parliamentary committee that UNRWA's work was "indispensable."

Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Xavier Bettel said civilians in Gaza would suffer even more than today without UNRWA support.

More than 26,000 people, including more than 150 UNRWA staff, have died in the enclave as a result of Israel's retaliatory military operation following the attacks that killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel.

The European Union, which according to UNRWA is its third-largest donor after the US and Germany, requested an external audit by EU-appointed experts.

The audit would focus "specifically on the control systems needed to prevent the possible involvement of its staff in terrorist activities", an EU Commission statement read. It also called for a review of all UNRWA staff to confirm they did not participate in the attacks.

The European Commission said no additional funding to UNRWA is foreseen until the end of next month. The EU will "determine upcoming funding decisions for UNRWA in light of the very serious allegations" regarding the possible involvement of its staff in the October 7 attacks, it said.

Sweden, another major donor, said it had not yet decided how to proceed. International Development Co-operation Minister Johan Forssell said the government was still analysing information from UNRWA.

Denmark asked the agency for an "in-depth" report in connection to the Israeli allegations. Its Development Co-operation Minister Dan Jorgensen said his country would then assess whether there was a need to take further steps.

France's Foreign Ministry adopted a similar position and said it would decide "in due course what action should be taken". It added it had no disbursement planned in the first six months of this year.

Meanwhile, Ireland and Belgium had previously said they would not sever ties with UNRWA.

Ireland's Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said he had "full confidence" in Mr Lazzarini's decision to immediately suspend UNRWA staff believed to have participated in the attacks and launch an investigation.

"Life-saving humanitarian aid must continue to reach civilians in Gaza/Palestinian areas, with UNRWA playing a vital role," Belgium's Co-operation Minister Caroline Gennez wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

In a detailed statement, Norway's Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide said while the allegations about UNRWA staff were "deeply concerning", his country would continue funding the agency in large part due to the "catastrophic" situation in Gaza.

Mr Eide warned against collective punishment of the population of Gaza, which numbers more than two million, due to the alleged actions of a handful of UNRWA staff.

"While I share the concern over the very serious allegations against some UNRWA staff, I urge other donors to reflect on the wider consequences of cutting funding to UNRWA in this time of extreme humanitarian distress," he said.

"We should not collectively punish millions of people. The people of Gaza urgently need humanitarian assistance and must not pay the price for the actions of others."

Israeli authorities have long called for the agency to be dismantled, arguing its mission is obsolete and that it fosters anti-Israeli sentiment among its staff, in its schools and in its wider social mission.

These claims are rejected by UNRWA.

Updated: January 30, 2024, 3:29 AM