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MPs urge UK government to reinstate Unrwa funding 'without delay'

Letter to David Cameron says restoration of aid payments would be a 'powerful message of solidarity to those affected by crisis in Gaza'
A displaced Palestinian boy shelters in an Unrwa-run school in the southern Gaza city of Rafah earlier this month (AFP)

Members of parliament have called on the UK government to immediately restore funding to Unrwa, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, amid widespread hunger and an unfolding famine in Gaza.

In a letter on Friday to foreign secretary David Cameron, over 50 MPs and members of the House of Lords urged the government to reinstate funding for the agency "without delay".

"The UK has long been a champion of humanitarian causes and a staunch supporter of Unrwa's efforts to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian refugees," the letter says.

"It will send a powerful message of solidarity to those affected by the crisis in Gaza and reaffirm the UK's leadership in global humanitarian efforts."

It is the third letter to Cameron in so many days from parliamentarians from all political parties urging the government to shift its policies nearly six months into the Gaza war.

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On Friday, 115 parliamentarians demanded that the UK put pressure on Israel not to use starvation as a weapon of war, resume Unrwa funding and set a deadline by which Israel must abide by the provisional measures of the International Court of Justice.

Earlier this week, over 130 parliamentarians called for a halt to arms sales to Israel

The UK government announced in late January that it was pausing funding to Unrwa in the wake of Israeli allegations that agency staff were involved in the 7 October attacks.

The latest letter questions what evidence provided the basis for the decision to pause funding and why the UK's allies, including most recently Finland and Germany, have resumed funding while the UK has not.

'Inconsistencies and delays'

Nearly three months after the decision, the parliamentarians also expressed frustration over "inconsistencies and delays" in the government's criteria to resume funding.

In February, they write, Foreign Office officials suggested the decision would be formed on the basis of interim reports of two investigations, one conducted by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (UN OIOS) and another by a former French diplomat, Catherine Colonna.

"Now in late March, we have been informed that the government won't make any future funding decisions until sometime after Unrwa's review concludes, expected on 20 April," the letter says.

'The UK has long been a champion of humanitarian causes and a staunch supporter of Unrwa's efforts'

- Letter from MPs and peers

The UK government has not made clear publicly whether it has received the UN OIOS interim report which other donor countries are understood to have received in early March.

In parliament on Tuesday, foreign office minister Andrew Mitchell said Colonna's report was now with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. "We hope to learn more about it today," he said.

MEE has since learned that the UK government has received a verbal briefing on Colonna's interim report, although it was not immediately clear when.

Colonna submitted her interim report to Guterres last Thursday. EU ambassadors were briefed on the report last week.

In addition to pressure from MPs, the government also faces a potential legal challenge from a British-Palestinian man whose parents live in northern Gaza and rely on Unrwa aid and have reported major shortages of food, water and other essentials. 

Lawyers acting on his behalf have sent a pre-action letter to the Foreign Office, threatening a judicial review if the government does not announce the restoration of Unrwa funding by next Tuesday.

The MPs in Friday's letter give the government until 6 April, the day the new financial year begins. Additional British funding for Unrwa is not due until the end of April.

'Running out of time'

Unrwa provides services including education and healthcare to 5.9 million Palestinian refugees including in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, JordanLebanon, and Syria, in addition to Gaza.

War on Gaza: UK plan in place to resume Unrwa funding after 'hasty' suspension
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While a decision on future funding has lingered, UK government officials have acknowledged repeatedly that the agency, which has the only distribution network in Gaza, is vital to delivering aid to the embattled enclave.

Nicola Banks, advocacy lead for the UK-based aid agency Action for Humanity which is operating in Gaza, said time is running out to help Palestinians in Gaza as Israel "systematically and deliberately" restricts aid distribution in Gaza with famine-like conditions spreading.

"The UK must recognise that the Gazan civilian population cannot survive without the services of the 13,000 UNRWA staff of whom many still report for work and support the millions of people seeking life-saving assistance and services," Banks said.

"Aid agencies like Action For Humanity are doing our best, but we cannot operate without Unrwa’s infrastructure and distribution capacity. It is not too late, but we really are running out of time."

Gary Spedding, a independent cross-party consultant focused on Israel and Palestine, said he believed it was "scandalous" that the UK had suspended funding for the "irreplaceable" agency.

"It is contradictory for the government to acknowledge the critical urgency with which aid must get into Gaza on the one hand while with the other contributing to the possible collapse of the only aid agency with the distribution network capable of getting said aid to the Palestinian people who desperately need it," Spedding said.

Sources in touch with the foreign office have told MEE over the past month that there is a sense that many in the agency want to restore funding immediately.

A source who spoke to Cameron about 10 days after the announcement told MEE that the foreign secretary said the decision had been "too hasty" and was looking for face-saving measures to restore funding.

Middle East experts who regularly engage with the government have suggested to MEE that the final decision to restore funding lies with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Downing Street office, not the Foreign Office.

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