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War on Gaza: Palestinian officials denounce US and UK decision to pause Unrwa funding

Italy, Australia, Canada, Finland, Switzerland and the Netherlands also halt financing of UN agency, after Israel alleges that 12 of its 13,000 employees were involved in Hamas attacks
Children play among tents set up for displaced Palestinians by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (Unrwa) in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on 19 October 2023 (AFP)
Children play among tents set up for displaced Palestinians by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (Unrwa) in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on 19 October 2023 (AFP)

Several countries, including the US and the UK, suspended funding for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa) on Friday, in a move which has been condemned by Palestinian officials. 

The development came after Israel alleged that 12 out of the 30,000 employees at Unrwa were involved in the Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel on 7 October.

On Friday, Unrwa said it had severed ties with a number of employees and launched an investigation. 

"The Israeli authorities have provided Unrwa with information about the alleged involvement of several Unrwa employees in the horrific attacks on Israel on October 7," Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of Unrwa said on Friday.

"To protect the agency's ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay."

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He added that any employees found to be involved in "acts of terror" would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution. 

Washington announced later on Friday that it would pause funding to the agency until the allegations were addressed, which it said pertained to 12 Unrwa employees. 

'The UK government has, by suspending funding to Unrwa, caved in to those who have been enabling Israeli crimes and possible genocide'

- Chris Doyle, CAABU

"The Department of State has temporarily paused additional funding for Unrwa while we review these allegations and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them," US state department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

Since then, Australia, Canada, Italy, Finland, the UK, Switzerland and the Netherlands have also announced they would halt Unrwa funding.

"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 Foreign Office said in a statement on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Norway and Ireland confirmed that it would not follow suit and cut funding to the agency. 

"The situation for the population in Gaza is catastrophic, and Unrwa is the most important humanitarian organisation there," said Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, adding that Oslo supported the agency's investigation. 

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin said he had full confidence in Lazzarini's decision to suspend suspected staff members and launch a probe. 

"Unrwa's 13,000 employees provide life saving assistance to 2.3m people and at incredible personal cost - with over 100 staff killed in last 4 months. [Ireland] provided Unrwa €18m [$19.5m] in 2023 and will continue our support in 2024," Martin wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

A senior Palestinian official denounced the decision by several countries to suspend funding. 

"As at this particular time and in light of the continuing aggression against the Palestinian people, we need the maximum support for this international organisation and not stopping support and assistance to it,” Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian Authority's civilian affairs minister, wrote on X.

"We call on the countries that announced the cessation of their support for Unrwa to immediately reverse their decision, which entails great political and humanitarian relief risks."

The development was also condemned by Hamas, which accused Israel of a "campaign of incitement" against UN agencies delivering vital supplies to Palestinians in Gaza.

"We ask the UN and the international organisations to not cave in to the threats and blackmail" by Israel, Hamas said in a statement on Telegram.

What is Unrwa?

Unrwa was established in 1949 - a year after the Nakba (or catastrophe) in which 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes during the creation of Israel - to provide healthcare, education and humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. 

Today, Unrwa is the second-largest employer in Gaza, following Hamas. The agency has 30,000 employees in total, 13,000 of whom are in the Gaza Strip. 

In the besieged enclave, it runs 183 schools, 22 health facilities and seven women's centres, among several other facilities. 

Its schools are attended by 286,645 students in Gaza, while its medical facilities have 3.4 million average visits per year, according to UN data.

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At least 136 of the agency's 13,000 staff members in Gaza have been killed by Israeli attacks since the war broke out on 7 October. 

Its schools, facilities and shelters have been repeatedly targeted by Israeli bombardment, with scores of displaced Palestinian civilians killed while taking refuge in Unrwa facilities. 

"Unrwa have 13,000 staff working at 350 installations in Gaza serving 1.7 million Palestinian refugees. Currently it is sheltering 1 million [displaced people]. It sacked 12 staff members based on allegations," Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, wrote on X on Saturday.

"How can such a large agency operating in a war zone, in an area under Israeli occupation, be expected to police 24 hours, seven days a week[?]" he added. 

"The UK government has, by suspending funding to Unrwa, caved in to those who have been enabling Israeli crimes and possible genocide."

The Israeli government has for some time attacked Unrwa, accusing it of fuelling anti-Israel incitement - a charge the agency denies. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on Saturday the government would seek to stop the agency from operating in Gaza after the war. 

"We have been warning for years: Unrwa perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza," Katz wrote on X. "We will work to garner bipartisan support in the US, the European Union and other nations globally for this policy aimed at halting Unrwa's activities in Gaza," he added. 

Israeli attacks on Gaza have killed at least 26,257 Palestinians and wounded 64,797 others since 7 October. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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