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War on Gaza: UK plan in place to resume Unrwa funding after 'hasty' suspension

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron says UN agency is the only body with a distribution network capable of delivering aid in Gaza
Britain's Foreign Secretary David Cameron arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on 6 March 2024 (Daniel Leal/AFP)

The British government has a plan in place to resume funding to the United Nations' agency for Palestinian refugees, Unrwa, Middle East Eye has learnt from a parliamentary source with direct knowledge of the matter.

A second source told MEE that a little over a week after the UK announced it was pausing its funding to the UN agency, Foreign Secretary David Cameron acknowledged the decision had been "too hasty" and was looking for face-saving measures to reinstate it.

The UK announced on 27 January that it was temporarily pausing funding to Unrwa in response to Israeli allegations that 12 staff members in Gaza had been involved in the 7 October Hamas-led attack, in which Palestinian fighters killed more than 1,100 people, mostly civilians, in communities near Gaza.

By early February, Cameron told the second source, the UK was urging the agency to announce measures that could be put before parliament to justify the UK resuming funding. 

According to the source, Cameron said "they were urging Unrwa to announce investigations not just into the allegations against the 12, but broader due diligence".

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The source added: "He acknowledged that they were too hasty, and now they want Unrwa to help them dig themselves out of it, because they didn't want to assist Israel in destroying the organisation." 

The Foreign Office declined to comment on whether a plan was in place, but directed MEE to comments Cameron made in the House of Lords on Tuesday, in which he suggested Unrwa was the only body capable of delivering aid in Gaza right now.

"I understand the concern about the fact that people who work for that organisation were involved in 7 October. That is shocking and it has to be properly investigated," he said, calling for reforms within the agency.

"However, I say to the House that if we also want aid delivered, Unrwa is the only body with a distribution network, so we must have a dose of realism about what we can achieve and how quickly we can achieve it. But the promotion of extremism needs to be properly dealt with.”

Cameron was scheduled to meet with Israeli cabinet minister Benny Gantz in London on Wednesday and, echoing his comments in the Lords, was expected to say that the UK is losing patience at the lack of aid making its way into Gaza.

Millions depend on support

The UK was among more than a dozen countries that suspended funding to Unrwa in late January, following Israeli allegations that some of its staff had participated in the 7 October attacks.

MEE established last month that several of the donor countries, including the Netherlands and Latvia, made their decisions based solely on Israel's assertions.

Questions were also raised about how the UK came to its decision, and whether it was presented with any evidence of the Unrwa staff's participation in the attack.

Countries froze Unrwa funds without seeing evidence of Israeli claims
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An informed source told MEE that Cameron had suspended funding “only on the basis of information in the public domain”. The Foreign Office declined at the time to answer whether this was true and on what basis it had acted.

At the time, Unrwa told MEE that the suspension of funding would force the agency "to take very tough decisions that no humanitarian agency or organisation should take". 

Several weeks later, with at least 17 Palestinians dying of starvation in Gaza, there are signs that the UK is not alone in wanting to see the agency continue to receive financial support.

Last week, the European Commission, one of Unrwa's largest donors, announced it would send $54m to the agency.

It said it was holding back $34m in funding, in an effort to seek balance between different views among EU countries, and would release the rest in two instalments as Unrwa addressed the issues arising from the allegations.

On Tuesday, reports said the Canadian government is resuming funding after receiving an interim report from the UN about the allegations. 

'Only Unrwa can deliver'

Sarah Champion, a Labour MP and chair of the International Development Committee, urged the UK government on Wednesday to resume funding "swiftly".

"If the foreign secretary is committed to avoiding a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, he needs to swiftly reinstate the funding, otherwise the human infrastructure will not be in place if aid starts to enter in a meaningful way," Champion told MEE.

Champion recently returned from a parliamentary committee visit to Cairo and northeastern Egypt's al-Arish, from where aid operations for Gaza are currently operating. 

'Only Unrwa can deliver the core public services needed in Gaza. Without it, everything else collapses'

- Sarah Champion, Labour MP

"All of the humanitarian organisations I spoke to on my recent trip to the region said the same thing: only Unrwa can deliver the core public services needed in Gaza. Without it, everything else collapses," she said. 

In a report released after the visit, the committee said it understood the UK government wanted to see Unrwa improve its governance and then would return to funding its work.

"The UK government must push for this to happen quickly, both so that UK funding continues but also that international partners are persuaded to restart their funding as well," the committee wrote, warning of catastrophic consequences in all areas in which Unrwa works.

Unrwa provides services including education and healthcare to 5.9 million Palestinian refugees, including in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as Gaza.

Juliette Touma, Unrwa's director of communications, told MEE on Wednesday: "We urge all those donors who suspended funding to Unrwa to reconsider the decisions, as the lives of millions of people in Gaza and the region depend on that support."

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