A number of Western countries are suspending funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the largest humanitarian relief body in Gaza, amid Israel’s allegations that a dozen aid workers were complicit in the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7.
Israel officials have reportedly presented the U.S. with evidence that UNRWA employees allegedly participated in kidnapping, the distribution of ammunition, and an attack on a kibbutz where 97 people died. The New York Times said Sunday that it has seen a dossier outlining the allegations.
UNRWA, which provides vital food, shelter, health clinics, and education to millions of Palestinians, said two of the 12 accused employees have died as a result of Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza. Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA Commissioner-General, announced Friday that the accused employees had been fired and an investigation by the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services has been launched.
But aid groups have also expressed concerns that the funding cuts could be catastrophic for Gazans, where 64,400 people have been left war wounded and the entire 2.2 million population faces food insecurity.
Below, what to know about the funding cuts.
Who has cut UNRWA aid?
So far, 15 countries have suspended further donations to UNRWA over Israel’s allegations that the workers were complicit in the Oct. 7 attack that saw 1,139 were killed and 240 taken as hostages. Among the first nations to announce cuts were, the U.K., the U.S., Canada, Australia, Germany, Finland, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also expressed “concern” about the allegations and suspended further funding of UNRWA, which it says will go toward other international organizations.
New Zealand, France, Austria, Iceland, Estonia, and Romania have also followed suit, announcing their own cuts. “The allegations are incredibly serious, it’s important they are properly understood and investigated, we won’t be making any further contributions until the Foreign Minister says it’s good to do so,” New Zealand’s Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said.
On Monday, the European Commission said no further funding is expected to go toward UNRWA until the end of February, pending an audit of the agency by independent experts appointed by the E.U.
The U.S. was the largest UNRWA donor in 2022, with $344 million, followed by Germany who pledged $202 million that year.
What role does UNRWA plays in Gaza?
UNRWA was founded in 1949 and is the largest U.N. agency in Gaza with 13,000 employees. It is also active across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The U.N. agency is almost entirely funded by voluntary donations.
As such, concerned nations are warning that the termination of funds will cause a deterioration to an already unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. At least 26,422 people have been killed and a staggering 1.9 million civilians displaced, some 85% of the Strip’s population.
Sanitation problems are rife, with UNICEF recording an average of access to one toilet for every 700 people in December. A sewage crisis has given rise to cholera and other gastrointestinal diseases and infections.
The U.N. said 152 of its staff have also been killed in the attacks, and 141 of its compounds—which have also served as emergency shelter—have been destroyed since Oct. 7; this is more than any previous conflict.
Criticism of the funding cuts
Among Western nations, Ireland and Norway have pledged continued support of UNRWA, citing the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.
Ireland’s government has cited the agency’s “life giving assistance to 2.3m people.” While Norway's minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Espen Barth Eide, urged other donors to consider the wider consequences of funding cuts. “We should not collectively punish millions of people. We must distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for,” he said.
Others, including the Norewegian Refugee Council, have echoed these concerns. “Donors, do not starve children for the sins of a few individual aid workers,” said Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
In a statement issued by the Arab League on Monday, its 22 member states across the Middle East and North Africa criticized the funding cuts. In 2018, Arab donors made up a quarter of UNRWA’s funding, but these figures dropped in subsequent years, cementing the agency’s financial struggles.
In October, Saudi Arabia pledged $2 million to UNRWA, and the United Arab Emirates donated $20 million. Additionally, in October, the Qatar Fund for Development (QFFD) and UNRWA signed a multiyear agreement totaling $18 million for 2023 to 2024.
In a call with UNRWA’s Lazzarini, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the funding cuts are tantamount to “collective punishment.” Additionally, Rafik Kharfan, head of the Palestinian Affairs Department at the Foreign Ministry said, “even if the Israeli accusations are proven, punishing the refugees is not allowed.”
Lazzarini issued an additional statement Saturday saying he was shocked by the funding cuts. “It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an Agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement and political crises in the region,” he said.
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