Spain to give UNRWA extra €3.5m after key donors suspend aid

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini and UN co-ordinator for Gaza Sigrid Kaag will brief EU foreign ministers next week

Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, said cutting funding for UNRWA would be 'disproportionate and dangerous'. AFP
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Spain will send the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) an additional €3.5 million in aid, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said on Monday, as European leaders warned of further regional instability should the agency collapse due to lack of finance.

Major donors to the UNRWA, including the US and Germany, suspended funding after Israel accused 12 of its 13,000 Palestinian employees in Gaza of involvement in the Hamas-led attacks in Israel on October 7.

"UNRWA's situation is desperate and there is a serious risk its humanitarian activities will be paralysed in Gaza within a few weeks," Mr Albares told politicians.

Madrid contributed €18.5 million directly to UNRWA last year, including €10 million approved in December after the decision to triple development and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories.

Portugal has announced additional aid to UNRWA worth €1 million. Its Foreign Minister Joao Cravinho wrote on social media platform X that it was essential "not to turn our backs on the Palestinian population at this difficult time".

The announcements come as some European leaders have raised concerns about the dangers of cutting off the organisation's funding.

Norway, a close ally of the EU but not an EU member, has said there is "no plan B" if the agency collapses.

In a blog post, the bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said "defunding UNRWA would be both disproportionate and dangerous".

UNRWA's suspended funds amount to $440 million and it has said it may be forced to shut down operations across the region by the end of this month.

On Monday UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced a review of the agency's mechanisms to ensure neutrality, and whether they were breached.

Led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, the review is set to start on February 14, with a final report to be released to the public in April. It will take place in parallel with a UNRWA investigation into Israel's claims.

Mr Borrell said he fully trusted the UN's investigation process and claimed there had been "misunderstandings and disinformation" regarding UNRWA's funding.

"Neither the European Commission nor Germany or France have decided to end their contributions," he said. "Some EU member states will even front-load and increase their payments."

Yet questions remain following a string of announcements by EU countries and the bloc on their funding to UNRWA.

Germany said it would not approve new funding until UNRWA terminated its internal investigation into Israeli claims, and has also clarified that no payments are pending.

France has said that it has not suspended transfers to UNRWA while also saying that there are no planned disbursements in the first semester of 2024. France had doubled its aid to UNRWA to €60 million last year.

Last week Sweden's Minister for International Development Co-operation Johan Forssell said his country would pause funding and that the funds would go instead to other humanitarian organisations.

Contacted by The National, the Swedish government agency for development cooperation (SIDA) said it would wait for UNRWA's interim report to be produced before deciding whether it would transfer a planned SEK 31 million (€2.7 million) in emergency appeals.

SIDA directed The National to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding its core support of SEK 400 million (€35.1 million) to the agency. The ministry had not answered by the time of publication.

"The decisions on the other partners to receive funding for 2024 are still formally to be made," said SIDA.

The EU did not suspend payments to UNRWA but has yet to decide whether it will later this month disburse a planned transfer of €82 million for 2024.

In a statement last week, the bloc said it would "determine upcoming funding decisions for UNRWA in light of the very serious allegations" made by Israel.

Brussels also requested an audit of the UNRWA by independent experts and a review of all the agency's staff. It remains unclear whether the EU was involved in appointing the review group led by Ms Colonna.

The European Commission – the bloc's executive arm – has been widely criticised for muddled messaging on Palestinian aid. Following the October 7 attacks, Hungarian commissioner Oliver Varhelyi announced all payments to Palestinian territories would be suspended. The bloc later clarified this was not the case, though it conducted a review of its aid.

Gaza war is worst I have seen, UN aid chief says

Gaza war is worst I have seen, UN aid chief says

The positioning of EU countries on UNRWA funding is likely to be discussed at the next meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers in Brussels next Monday. Mr Borrell said he had invited UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini and UN co-ordinator for Gaza Sigrid Kaag to brief European ministers at the meeting.

Israeli government members have long wanted the UNRWA to be shut down, Mr Borrell said.

"But suppressing the agency would not make the issue of Palestinian refugees vanish, it would only make it worse," he said.

"Advocating for the end of UNRWA often confuses cause with consequence. The agency's continued existence, since it was established in 1949, is the direct consequence of the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been resolved."

Updated: February 06, 2024, 6:20 AM