The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has told journalists that getting rid of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees will not make the refugees go away. “No, it will make the situation still worse,” said Josep Borrell. “You know, hundreds of thousands of people are being fed every day thanks to the work of UNRWA. And not only in Gaza, but also in Lebanon, in Syria, in Jordan and the West Bank.”
Nobody else can do what UNRWA is doing, added the EU official. “The agency is irreplaceable.”
The context of the question about UNRWA was the defunding of the agency following an unsubstantiated allegation by Israel that 12 of its 13,000 employees in Gaza were involved with Hamas on 7 October. The US, UK, France, Germany and other donor countries suspended payments immediately, even though, as Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong has since admitted, no evidence was provided by Israel in support of its allegation.
“Allegations have to be verified,” insisted Borrell. “The presumption of innocence is valid for everyone, at any time, even for UNRWA.”
He pointed out that it is no secret that the Israeli government has wanted to get rid of UNRWA for many years in the belief that if the UN agency set up specifically to provide essential services for Palestinian refugees is shut down, the refugees will just disappear. “So, allegations? OK. I am happy to know that UNRWA has already launched a complete and comprehensive investigation about what is happening [but] let’s wait for this investigation to take place. In the meantime, people have to eat. They have to go to the doctor. UNRWA staff conduct 30,000 medical consultations per day.”
When asked if he also believes that Israel’s actions in Gaza are out of proportion, Borrell noted that even US President Joe Biden has said so, and he is one of Israel’s “strongest” supporters. “I think this assessment is coming more and more from many people around the world, with an unbearable number of civilians being killed. But my question is, apart from words, what else do you think has to be done? If you believe that the death toll is too high, are you able to make it lower?”
That, he suggested, would include the stopping of arms sold and sent to Israel. “But the discussions continue. My colleague and friend, [US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken has been travelling to Israel and begging the Israelis to stop killing [civilians]. My colleague, the German Minister [for Foreign Affairs, Annalena Baerbock] yesterday also issued a message exactly on the same terms.”
The world has to continue putting pressure on Israel to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, concluded the EU foreign affairs chief, “because if they launch an offensive against a highly populated area [Rafah], with more than 1.7 million people crashed against a wall who cannot escape… “You know, people in Gaza cannot escape. They are behind closed doors. They are being bombed without being able to escape. That is the situation and I hope that the whole world will take stock of it.”