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Aid wars over Gaza: resuming donations for UNRWA

March 12, 2024 at 2:00 pm

Palestinians living in UN school in Gaza are viewed in Gaza on March 04, 2024. [Mahmud Isa – Anadolu Agency]

The steady and ruthless international campaign by Israel to defund the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is unravelling. The lynchpin in the effort was a thin, poison-pen dossier making claims that 12 individual UNRWA employees (out of 13,000 working in Gaza) were Hamas operatives involved in the 7 October attack. Within a matter of days, two internal investigations were commenced, various individuals were sacked, and $450 million worth of funding from donor states was suspended.

As the head of the agency, Philippe Lazzarini, explained at a press conference on 4 March, he has “never been informed” or received evidence substantiating Israel’s allegation, although he did receive the prompt about the profane twelve directly from Israeli officials. Every year, both Israel and the Palestinian authorities were furnished with staff lists, he pointed out, “and I never received the slightest concern about the staff that we have been employing.”

Had the Israeli authorities signed off on these alleged participants in bungling or conspiratorial understanding? Certainly, there was more than a pongy whiff of distraction about it all, given that Israel had come off poorly in the International Court of Justice proceedings launched in The Hague by South Africa, during which the judges issued an interim order demanding the observance of the UN Genocide Convention, an increase in humanitarian aid, and the retention of evidence that might be used for future criminal prosecutions for genocide.

READ: Hunger everywhere in Gaza, UNRWA says

An abrupt wave of initial success in starving the agency of funds followed, with a number of countries announcing plans to freeze their donations. In the US, irate members of Congress accused UNRWA of having “longstanding connections to terrorism and promotion of anti-Semitism.” A hearing was duly held titled “UNRWA Exposed: Examining the Agency’s Mission and Failures” with Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies frothing at an agency that supposedly incited “violence against Israel, subsidises US-designated terrorist organisations, denies Palestinians their basic human rights, and blocks the pathways to a sustainable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

The attempt to cast UNRWA into gleefully-welcomed oblivion has not worked.

Questions were asked about the initial figure of twelve alleged militants. News outlets began questioning the numbers.

Donations are now being resumed. Canada, for instance, approved “the robust investigative process underway”, and also acknowledged that “more can be done to respond to the urgent needs of Palestinian civilians.” The initial cancellation of funding to the agency, charged Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, had been “a reckless political decision that never should have been made.”

Palestinians in Gaza see UNRWA funding cuts as 'death sentence' - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor] 

Palestinians in Gaza see UNRWA funding cuts as ‘death sentence’ – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The Swedish government was also encouraged by undertakings made by UNRWA “to allow independent auditing, strengthen internal supervision and enable additional staff controls.” It promised an initial outlay of 200 million kroner ($19m). Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, Johan Forssell, promised that it would “monitor closely to ensure UNRWA follows through on what it has promised.” Aid policy spokesperson for the Christian Democrats, Gudrun Brunegard, also conceded that, given the “huge” needs on the part of the civilian population, UNRWA was “the organisation that is best positioned to help vulnerable Palestinians.”

READ: Sweden resumes funding to UN agency for Palestinians

Much the same sentiment was expressed by the European Union, with the Commission agreeing to pay €50m to UNRWA from a promised total of €82m on the proviso that EU-appointed experts audit the screening of staff. “This audit,” a European Commission statement explained, “will review the control systems to prevent the possible involvement of its staff and assets in terrorist activities.” Having been found wanting in her screeching about-turn, the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen insisted that the EU stood “by the Palestinian people in Gaza and elsewhere in the region. Innocent Palestinians should not have to pay the price for the crimes of [the] terrorist group Hamas.”

Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi was stiffly bureaucratic in expressing satisfaction at “the commitment of UNRWA to introduce robust measures to prevent possible misconduct and minimise the risk of allegations.” At no point has Israel’s own contribution to the calamity in Gaza, and its insatiable vendetta against the agency, been mentioned.

The bombast and blunder of the whole effort by Israel was further discredited by claims that UNRWA staff had been victims of torture at the hands of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) when drafting the dossier. In a statement released by the agency, a grave accusation was levelled: “These forced confessions as a result of torture are being used by the Israeli Authorities to further spread misinformation about the agency as part of attempts to dismantle UNRWA.” In doing so, Israel was “putting our staff at risk and has serious implications on our operations in Gaza and around the region.”

For its part, the IDF claimed that this was all exaggerated piffle: “The mistreatment of detainees during their time in detention or whilst under interrogation violates IDF values and contravenes IDF [sic] and is therefore absolutely prohibited.”

Increasingly on the losing side of that battle, the Israeli authorities decided to cook the figures further, declaring with crass confidence that 450 UNRWA employees in Gaza were members of militant groups including Hamas. Sticking to routine, those making that allegation decided that evidence of such claims was not needed. Those employees, claimed Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, “are military operatives in terror groups in Gaza… This was no coincidence. This is systematic. There is no claiming, ‘we did not know’.”

In the fog of war, mendacity thrives with vigour, but the current suggestion on the part of various donor states is that the humanitarian incentive to ameliorate the suffering of the Gaza populace has taken precedence over Israel’s persistently lethal attacks on Palestinians. That, at least, is the case with certain countries, leaving the doubters starkly exposed.

READ: Israel once again takes aim at Gazans waiting for aid

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.