Israel Gaza war: UK Government must restore UNRWA aid agency funding to prevent famine – Laura Waddell

Claims by Israel that some UNRWA staff were involved in terrorism saw the aid agency lose much of its international funding. Australia, Canada, Japan and other countries, but not the UK, have since reversed that decision

What’s happening with UNRWA? The ongoing dispute about the UN Relief and Works Agency is a key sticking point for getting aid into Gaza. In February this year, Israeli authorities condemned the organisation, making two key allegations: that a dozen of its staff were involved in the October 7 terror attacks on Israelis by Hamas, and that 450 employees were active in terror groups. In response, 16 countries including the UK suspended funding to the agency.

Since then, the UN says Israel has not yet provided any evidence to the investigation for its allegations. For their own part, UNRWA say it has seen no "concrete evidence” that any of its employees took part in terror attacks, and has voiced concerns employees were coerced while in detention to claim false links to Hamas.

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Directly contrary to Israel’s wishes, most of the countries that halted funding of UNRWA have since resumed, citing the urgency of the scene on the ground in Gaza. But now, as the Observer reported on Sunday, Israel has launched a proposal with the UN for the agency’s complete dismantling. Some have criticised this as a political move to increase Israeli authority over Gazans; others say refusal to work with UNRWA will in effect prevent aid distribution.

Diplomatic shifts

Individual UN member states which resumed funding have been composing diplomatic but firm statements about the urgency of preventing famine. Equipping UNRWA – the biggest, oldest agency working across the area – is seen by many foreign governments as the most effective way to mitigate humanitarian crisis. But pressing ahead with funding the agency at the same time as Israel lobbies for its closure marks a realignment of diplomatic priorities and a chilling of some relations.

The Canadian government resumed funding last month. Ahmed Hussen, their international development minister, described UNRWA as “vital”, adding: “We have been reassured by the contents of [the UN’s] interim report, but in addition to that, we've been reassured by the number of processes and steps that UNRWA itself has undertaken, as well as reforms introduced through the leadership of the UN Secretary-General.”

Displaced Palestinians gather to receive food in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip amid ongoing battles between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters (Picture: Yasser Qudihe/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)Displaced Palestinians gather to receive food in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip amid ongoing battles between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters (Picture: Yasser Qudihe/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)
Displaced Palestinians gather to receive food in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip amid ongoing battles between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters (Picture: Yasser Qudihe/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

In the same week, Sweden also resumed aid, stating its position that the organisation is the best positioned to help vulnerable Palestinians. Sweden’s international development cooperation minister Johan Forssell said: “We have already increased humanitarian support and are now issuing an initial disbursement to UNRWA following its written assurances directly to Sweden concerning increased transparency and stricter procedures.”

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Israel Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat responded by calling the move “a serious mistake that constitutes tacit agreement and support by the governments of Canada and Sweden to continue to ignore the involvement of UNRWA employees in terrorist activity". But these words were not enough to dissuade other nations from following suit: since then, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland have also resumed funding.

‘Essential’, ‘vital’

In mid-March came Australia. “We know that UNRWA is central and vital to delivering that assistance to the people who need it,” said foreign affairs minister Penny Wong. In the run-up, some in the Australian media had been critical of Israeli intelligence describing it as “flimsy”. Now Japan is the latest nation to reinstate funds, following a meeting last week in Tokyo between Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa and UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini. In her statement, Kamikawa described UNRWA as “essential” and said it was Japan’s responsibility as a member of the UN Security Council to respond to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza; a gauntlet to those sitting it out. Norway never halted funding, their foreign minister Espen Barth Eide directly urging fellow donors to reconsider cuts with the words: "We should not collectively punish millions of people.”

Some say UNRWA needs reform – but not right now, while crisis in Gaza worsens. The scale of reform itself is also a matter of debate. But statements about greater transparency, while not directly refuting terrorist activity, place concerns on a more minor, workable scale. “Vital” – the description of UNRWA’s work by nations which initially supported Israel in pulling support but which since have turned back, united in the message that it’s the most effective route to saving lives.

UK awaits full UN investigation

Things have moved much more slowly here. While the UK has supported UN Security Council resolutions calling for humanitarian aid to be allowed into the Gaza Strip, there is no change on UNRWA. Rishi Sunak’s government says the agency won’t receive scheduled funding from Britain until the end of April regardless, and will be awaiting the review by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna and the full UN investigation. Other countries, in stressing the urgency of encroaching starvation, have instead taken the opportunity of refunding UNRWA to incease aid – Canada and Australia both announced extra financing for emergency air force aid drops.

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Some MPs have been calling for funding to resume without delay, arguing UNRWA has a crucial role in supporting approximately 1.9 million internally displaced Palestinians. A cross-party group of over 50 MPs and peers last week signed SNP foreign affairs spokesperson Brendan O’Hara’s letter to Foreign Secretary David Cameron. The letter calls on the UK to demonstrate its commitment to upholding human rights, promoting stability in the region and fostering peaceful resolution. It points out: “Our allies in Canada, France, Finland, Australia, Sweden and the European Union have all restored funding. So why hasn’t the UK?”

As the picture of a hunger-stricken Gaza builds, other nations have identified that halting funding to UNRWA is a practical block to helping people there who, through no fault of their own, face starvation. The UK Government, lingering behind peer countries capable of identifying and asserting their own humanitarian values, ducks the question with a Savile Row-clad, managerial cold shoulder.



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