British Government suspension of future funding for UNRWA

Our Government is wrong, says the Balfour Project

Our Government has suspended future UK funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is by far the most important and effective provider of humanitarian and development assistance to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the region. UNRWA schools normally teach 500,000 children. Our Government did so at a time of unprecedented need in Gaza, where 1.9m Palestinians are internally displaced, more than 25,000 have been killed, 60,000 wounded, and the entire population faces starvation and epidemics. The US and 11 other donors have also suspended funding. The UK used to be a major donor, but in recent years had substantially cut funding for UNRWA’s regular budget.

By contrast, Norway, Ireland and others have pledged to maintain their funding of UNRWA. They are right. Our Government is wrong.

The reason given for this drastic suspensive action was Israeli Government allegations that UNRWA staff members were involved in the 7 Oct. attack by Hamas and other Gazan armed groups. It is not clear whether our Government has carefully reviewed  evidence to support these allegations. Nor is it clear why Israel chose this moment to publicise the allegations, on the weekend of the interim ruling by the International Court of Justice on the genocide case brought by the Government of South Africa.  What is clear is that successive Israeli Governments have long sought to undermine UNRWA and press for its abolition on the grounds that it allegedly perpetuates the Palestinian refugee issue.  

  The Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, has sacked the accused employees and referred the Israeli allegations to the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), a UNHQ investigation body entirely distinct from UNRWA.  The Office is investigating the allegations urgently.

On 26 Jan, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to do several things, one of which was 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”.

That is a duty upon the Government of Israel.

UNRWA is the only international agency with the capacity to deliver humanitarian assistance at scale in Gaza and which retains the trust of the traumatised local population. UNRWA’s local staff have themselves suffered enormously over the past three months, through displacement, destruction of their homes and death. One hundred and fifty two UNRWA staff have been killed since 7 Oct.

The UK Development Minister at the FCDO, Andrew Mitchell, has told the House of Commons that our Government’s decision relates to future funding in the next financial year – not the money already given. To that extent, the UK decision of itself should not impact current UNRWA activity. But introducing uncertainty over funding at this time of humanitarian crisis is wrong.

UNRWA has called upon those donors who have suspended funding to reverse their decisions for the sake of the Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Our Government claims that it seeks stability in the region, and works to avoid hardship and radicalisation.

Suspending UNRWA funding contradicts that claim. Our Government should not wait for the OIOIS report and a parallel independent review of how the Agency maintains the neutrality it is obliged as a UN body to uphold. It should resume – and indeed increase – UNRWA funding immediately.

Sir Vincent Fean, Balfour Project Trustee and former British Consul-General, Jerusalem.

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