UNRWA funding suspension shows donor hypocrisy

The decision by major Western powers to pull funding dismantles whatever remains of their credibility not only in the global south but also in their home countries.

UNRWA funding suspension shows donor hypocrisy

Amidst the ongoing crisis in Gaza, UNRWA — the UN agency for Palestine refugees — faces a new challenge as 12 of its Gaza staff members were accused by Israel of involvement in a Hamas-led incident on 7 October 2023.

Strikingly, these allegations surfaced on the same day the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to boost aid to Gaza as part of measures to prevent genocide.

Despite UNRWA's prompt investigation and termination of the accused employees, major donors — accounting for over three-quarters of the agency's budget — froze contributions in response to the allegations. This move jeopardises the agency's operations in the Middle East, including Gaza, with a potential shutdown by the end of this month if funding doesn't resume.

Withholding funds from UNRWA displays callous indifference to the 2.3 million people in Gaza facing starvation, imminent famine, and disease due to Israel's continued bombardment and deliberate aid deprivation.

Rather than collectively punishing all the Palestinians most in need based on allegations against a handful of individuals, these countries should resume funding, support UNRWA's investigation, and, most importantly, call for a ceasefire to halt the indiscriminate targeting and killing of innocent civilians.

Rather than collectively punishing the Palestinians when they are most vulnerable, countries should resume funding and call for a ceasefire.

Important lifeline

Founded in 1949, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) was established to provide assistance and protection to Palestinians who were displaced to Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

It has 30,000 employees and provides direct humanitarian assistance, human development, and protection programming for more than 5.9 million Palestinian refugees registered with the agency and living in its areas of operations. More than half of the agency's regular budget is devoted to education.

However, since 26 January, UNRWA and its life-saving operations have been under an existential threat. Israel accused 12 UNRWA staff members of participating in abductions and killings during the 7 October raid that triggered the Gaza war.

According to Sky News, a six-page Israeli intelligence dossier, shared only with selected Western governments, alleges that six of these employees infiltrated Israel, with four involved in kidnapping Israelis and another providing logistics support.

The dossier also claims to assert that approximately 190 UNRWA employees of the UNRWA are operatives affiliated with Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The report further claims that UNRWA is compelled to operate under the authorization and supervision of Hamas and is involved in assisting Hamas with securing humanitarian aid that is transferred to Gaza.

UNWRA provides direct humanitarian assistance, human development, and education for more than 5.9 million Palestinian refugees across the Levant.

Mixed reactions

In response to the aforementioned allegations, UNRWA swiftly declared the immediate termination of the contracts of the identified employees and initiated a thorough investigation without delay to ascertain the veracity of the claims.

Subsequently, the UN Secretary-General affirmed the autonomy of the UN inquiry into the allegations. It was underscored that the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the preeminent investigative entity within the UN system, had been formally commissioned to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the matter.

Nonetheless, Australia, Austria, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States have collectively declared an indefinite suspension of payments to UNRWA in response to the allegations.

In stark contrast, the governments of Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Spain, and Norway have judiciously affirmed their ongoing financial support for UNRWA. These nations have concurrently emphasised the necessity of thoroughly investigating the allegations.

Meanwhile, the European Union and France announced that they would review the matter in light of the outcome of the investigation announced by the UN.

Despite many Western countries pulling funding, Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Spain, and Norway have judiciously affirmed their ongoing financial support for UNRWA.

Evidence gap

The funding suspension — which could constitute up to two-thirds of UNRWA's total budget — has rightfully triggered strong criticism from human rights defenders and policymakers for being wrong, cruel, and deeply concerning.

The reasons behind this condemnation vary; chiefly among them is the disproportionality of the donor's decision. Critics of the decision, such as the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, have pointed out that the agency and Palestinians should not be penalised due to the alleged acts of a dozen staff out of its 13,000 staff in Gaza — especially since those were immediately addressed.

As for the accusations against other employees, around 10% of the workforce were general and neither provided names nor compelling evidence.

One entity that shares this perspective is Sky News. After reviewing Israeli intelligence documents, the news outlet announced that they had not seen proof of the claims, and many of the allegations, even if true, do not directly implicate UNRWA.

Palestinians have accused Israel of distorting information to discredit UNRWA — an organisation that safeguards the refugee status of Palestinians. This status is crucial for the rights of the 6 million stateless individuals registered with the agency to return to their homeland.

The funding suspension — which constitutes up to two-thirds of UNRWA's total budget — has rightfully triggered strong criticism from human rights defenders and policymakers for being wrong, cruel, and deeply concerning.

Israel's established bias

The reasonable doubt expressed by Sky News, among others, should, at a minimum, be enough reason for donors to act responsibly and wait for the outcome of the investigation.

Not rushing to judgment is especially important here, given Israel's bias and longstanding campaign against UNRWA. Tel Aviv has long claimed that Hamas fighters have used UNRWA facilities to hide and store weapons, including in schools and hospitals, and dug tunnels under the agency's buildings, sometimes with its knowledge.

The strong opposition to UNRWA has become more pronounced in light of recent allegations. Israel's Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, emphasised on 27 January the government's enduring opposition to UNRWA.

Among other claims, he stated that the UN agency "perpetuates the refugee issue" and revealed that "under his leadership," the Israeli government intends to "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."

The objective, as stated by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, is for Palestinians in Gaza to "voluntarily" migrate, allowing Israel to re-establish illegal Jewish settlements in the enclave.

Taking a measured approach, refraining from hasty conclusions, and acting appropriately should have been the preferred course of action, given the catastrophic consequences of suspending UNRWA's aid.

It comes as no surprise that the scale of the suspended funding has compelled the agency, the largest relief organisation in Gaza, to announce that unless funding is resumed, it "will not be able to continue" operations in Gaza, the occupied West Bank, or the three other countries in the region it operates in "beyond the end of February."

The collapse of UNRWA's operations could not have come at a worse time for the over 2 million Palestinians facing starvation in Gaza. The agency is also sheltering over 1 million displaced Palestinians in 150 facilities within Gaza, potentially triggering another wave of mass displacement.

Given Israel's bias and longstanding campaign against UNRWA, it's important that donor countries not rush to judgment.

Hypocrisy exposed

The timing of the accusations underscores the hypocrisy of Western countries that suspended UNRWA's funding. Israel's allegations were announced on the same day the International Court of Justice issued a verdict in South Africa's case against Israel, characterising Tel Aviv's atrocities in the Gaza Strip as a plausible case of genocide.

Read more: UN court hears South Africa genocide case against Israel

The court adopted binding orders, requiring Israel to take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Many accused Israel of choosing the timing of its accusations to undermine the momentum around the court's ruling. More importantly, Israel's move was seen as a manoeuvre to lobby its allies to cut funding, enabling Israel to hinder aid delivery to Gaza even without defying the court's ruling.

Equally striking is how easily Western countries — especially the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany — suspended their humanitarian funding while resisting halting military assistance and arms sales to Israel, even though its forces are committing — with impunity — widespread and serious abuses amounting to war crimes against Palestinian civilians.

Despite the International Court of Justice ruling, intense Israeli bombardment from air, land, and sea continued across much of the Gaza Strip, resulting in further civilian casualties, displacement, and destruction.

The hypocrisy is on full display, especially considering that the countries involved claim to champion a rules-based order in which humanitarian aid, like civilian life, is sacrosanct.

As such, major Western powers like the US, Germany, and the UK are dismantling whatever remains of their credibility not only in the global south but also in their home countries.

To mitigate the ramifications of the biased and unjust decision to suspend UNRWA's aid, the donor countries involved need to urgently practice what they preach and prioritise the protection of civilian life by all necessary means, including enforcing a ceasefire.

It's not too late for these countries to act sensibly and salvage whatever is left of their reputation, even now — but soon it might be.

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