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Home » UK, Finland, Italy join US in halt to UNRWA funds; Israel wants it replaced post-war

UK, Finland, Italy join US in halt to UNRWA funds; Israel wants it replaced post-war

by Keegan Ross
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Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Finland became the latest countries on Saturday to pause funding for the UN refugee agency for Palestinians (UNRWA), after the body said Friday that it had sacked “several” employees accused by Israel of involvement in Hamas’s October 7 massacre.

The United States, Australia and Canada had already paused funding to the aid agency, a critical source of support for people in Gaza, after the allegations by Israel. The agency said on Friday it had opened an investigation into several employees and severed ties with those people.

Encouraging more donor suspensions, Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Saturday UNRWA should be replaced once fighting in the enclave dies down and accused the agency of ties to Islamist terrorists in Gaza.

“In Gaza’s rebuilding, UNRWA must be replaced with agencies dedicated to genuine peace and development,” he added on X, formerly Twitter.

Deputy UN spokesperson Farhan Haq, asked about Katz’s remarks, said: “We are not responding to rhetoric. UNRWA overall had had a strong record, which we have repeatedly underscored.”

UNRWA has always rejected accusations of ties to terror in the past and maintained it is a relief and humanitarian agency.

The Palestinian Authority foreign ministry criticized what it described as an Israeli campaign against UNRWA, and Hamas condemned the termination of employee contracts “based on information derived from the Zionist enemy.”

Workers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) hand out flour rations and other supplies to people at an UNRWA warehouse in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 12, 2023, amid the war between Israel and the terror group Hamas. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

UNRWA was set up to help refugees of the 1948 war at Israel’s founding and provides education, health and aid services to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. It helps about two thirds of Gaza’s 2.3 million population and has played a pivotal aid role during the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

War erupted after Hamas’s grisly October 7 massacres, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from Gaza by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 250 hostages, mostly civilians.

The UK Foreign Office said on Saturday it was temporarily pausing funding for UNRWA while the accusations were reviewed.

“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 UK Foreign Office said in a statement on Saturday.

“The Italian government has suspended financing of the UNRWA after the atrocious attack on Israel on October 7,” Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said on social media platform X.

Finland’s foreign minister Ville Tavio announced the country was “temporarily” halting funding to UNRWA on Saturday, in a post on X, adding: “Finland does not give aid that benefits Hamas.”

The Netherlands also said it was suspending funding.

Announcing the investigation, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said on Friday that he had decided to terminate the contracts of some staff members to protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance.

UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini adresses the assembly on the opening day of the Global Refugee Forum, in Geneva on December 13, 2023. (Photo by JEAN-GUY PYTHON / POOL / AFP)

Lazzarini did not disclose the number of employees allegedly involved in the attacks, nor the nature of their alleged involvement. He said, however, that “any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror” would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution. During weeks of Israeli bombardment of the Palestinian enclave, UNRWA has repeatedly said its capacity to render humanitarian assistance to people in Gaza is on the verge of collapse.

Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the Palestinians’ umbrella political body the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said cutting support to the agency brought major political and relief risks.

“We call on countries that announced the cessation of their support for UNRWA to immediately reverse their decision,” he said on X.

The Foreign Ministry in Germany, a major donor to UNRWA, welcomed UNRWA’s investigation, saying it was deeply concerned about the allegations raised against agency employees.

“We expect Lazzarini to make it clear within UNRWA’s workforce that all forms of hatred and violence are totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” it said on X.

A senior Israeli official told the Axios news site that the Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces had provided information that pointed to the active participation of UNRWA staffers along with the use of the agency’s vehicles and facilities in the October 7 onslaught.

“This was strong and corroborated intelligence,” the official told Axios. “A lot of the intelligence is a result of interrogations of militants who were arrested during the October 7 attack.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres was “horrified” by the accusations and said that an “urgent and comprehensive independent review of UNRWA will be conducted,” his spokesman Stephane Dujarric announced.

The US State Department said it was “extremely troubled” by the allegations and had “temporarily paused additional funding” while it reviewed the claims and the UN’s plan to address concerns.

While the UNRWA statement did not specify how many staffers it had fired, the US statement revealed that 12 employees “may have been involved.”

Workers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) hand out flour rations and other supplies to people at a UNRWA warehouse in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 12, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The United States was the agency’s largest bilateral donor in 2022, contributing more than $340 million, according to UNRWA’s website.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Thursday with Guterres “to emphasize the necessity of a thorough and swift investigation of this matter,” the statement said. “We also welcome the UN’s announcement of a ‘comprehensive and independent’ review of UNRWA. There must be complete accountability for anyone who participated in the heinous attacks of October 7.”

The European Union’s top diplomat said he was also “extremely concerned” by the allegations and that the bloc is in touch with UNRWA, but didn’t announce a similar halt in funding.

In Israel, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant hailed the US decision to pause funding to UNRWA, calling the move “an important step in holding UNRWA accountable.”

Palestinians receive bags of flour at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) distribution center in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on November 21, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Said Khatib/AFP)

“Major changes need to take place so that international efforts, funds and humanitarian initiatives don’t fuel Hamas terrorism and the murder of Israelis,” Gallant tweeted. “Terrorism under the guise of humanitarian work is a disgrace to the UN and the principles it claims to represent.”

Right-wing pro-Israel groups in the US as well as Republicans had long argued for defunding the agency, saying that its near uniqueness in the world — granting refugee status not just to the first generation of refugees but to their descendants — perpetuated the conflict and a culture of dependence among Palestinians.

The outbreak of war deteriorated relations between Israel and UNRWA. The agency, in sometimes strident tones, said Israel was targeting civilian targets, including its schools and its first responder stations. Israel said UNRWA was, willfully or under threat, providing cover for Hamas terrorists.

Source: The Times of Israel

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