Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Finland have became the latest countries to pause funding for the United Nations’ refugee agency for Palestinians (UNRWA), following allegations that some of its staff were involved in the events of October 7.
The United States, Australia and Canada had already paused funding to the aid agency, a critical source of support for people in Gaza, after the allegations by Israel.
The agency said on Friday that it had opened an investigation into several employees and severed ties with those people.
Encouraging more donor suspensions, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said that the UNRWA should be replaced once fighting in the enclave dies down and accused the UNRWA of ties to religious militants in Gaza.
“In Gaza’s rebuilding, @UNRWA must be replaced with agencies dedicated to genuine peace and development,” he added on X.
Reuters could not immediately contact the UNRWA’s communications head for comment.
The UNRWA has always rejected similar accusations in the past and maintained that it is a relief and humanitarian agency.
The Palestinian foreign ministry criticised what it described as an Israeli campaign against the UNRWA, and Hamas condemned the termination of employee contracts “based on information derived from the Zionist enemy”.
The UNRWA was set up to help refugees of the 1948 war at Israel’s founding and provides education, health and aid services to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
It helps about two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.3mn population and has played a pivotal aid role during the war that Israel launched to eliminate Hamas after the events of October 7.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said yesterday that while the UNRWA provides “vital, life-saving work”, Brisbane would “temporarily pause disbursement of recent funding”.
“We welcome UNRWA’s immediate response, including terminating contracts and launching an investigation,” she said on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.
Canada’s International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen announced on Friday that Ottawa had “temporarily paused any additional funding to the UNRWA while it undertakes a thorough investigation into these allegations”.
Finland, which had a four-year agreement to provide €5mn ($5.4mn) annually to the UNRWA, suspended its payments and called for an “an independent and thorough investigation”, in a statement from its foreign ministry.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said Italy is joining the ranks of those suspending funding, adding: “We are committed to providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinian population while protecting Israel’s security.”
Switzerland, which has made annual contributions of around 20mn Swiss francs ($23mn) to the UNRWA, said yesterday that no decision would be taken on the 2024 payment until the accusations were clarified.
“Switzerland has zero tolerance for all forms of support for terrorism, and for calls to hatred or incitement to violence,” it added.
Dutch Minister for Trade and Development Geoffrey van Leeuwen announced a freeze in funding for the UNRWA while the investigation is ongoing, saying that the government was “extremely shocked”.
“The accusation is that the attack was committed on October 7 with UN money, with our money,” he told public broadcaster NOS yesterday.
The British government said it was “appalled by the allegations” made by Israel and would be “temporarily pausing any future funding” while the Foreign Office reviewed the claims.
Announcing the investigation on Friday, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said that he had decided to terminate the contracts of some staff members to protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance.
Lazzarini did not disclose the number of employees allegedly involved in the attacks, nor the nature of their alleged involvement.
He said, however, that “any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror” would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.
During weeks of Israeli bombardment of the Palestinian enclave, the UNRWA has repeatedly said its capacity to render humanitarian assistance to people in Gaza is on the verge of collapse.
Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the Palestinians’ umbrella political body the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said that cutting support to the agency brought major political and relief risks.
“We call on countries that announced the cessation of their support for the UNRWA to immediately reverse their decision,” he said on X.
The foreign ministry in Germany, a major donor to the UNRWA, welcomed the UNRWA’s investigation, saying that it is deeply concerned about the allegations raised against agency employees.
“We expect Lazzarini to make it clear within the UNRWA’s workforce that all forms of hatred and violence are totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” it said on X.
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