Countries froze Unrwa funds without seeing evidence of Israeli claims

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A number of donors have suspended their funding to Unrwa based on nothing more than Israel’s allegations against a dozen refugee agency employees
Palestinian men and children gather for a demonstration in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on 30 January 2024, calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (AFP)
By Dania Akkad

Almost two weeks after the United States suspended funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), swiftly followed by a host of other donors, Middle East Eye has learned that in a number of cases the decision to withold funding was based solely on Israel‘s assertions.

At least two countries that followed in the footsteps of the US – the Netherlands and Latvia – did not see evidence of Israeli allegations that employees at the agency for Palestinian refugees played a role in the Hamas-led 7 October attacks before they made their decisions, Middle East Eye has established.

An informed source told MEE this week that British Foreign Secretary David Cameron suspended funding “only on the basis of information in the public domain”. The Foreign Office declined to answer whether this was true and on what basis it had made its decision.

Reports have also emerged in Canada and Australia in the past 24 hours suggesting their foreign ministries did not see evidence – or “all of the evidence” in the case of Australia – ahead of making their decisions to suspend aid.

Additionally, MEE understands that the European Union, Unrwa’s third largest donor, which has said it is awaiting the outcome of a UN investigation before its funding is due at the end of the month, also received no information from Israel to corroborate its claims.

A source who has been in contact with EU diplomats in recent weeks told MEE that the Europeans have been saying, “we have nothing, and others say they have nothing”.

“So governments are taking these decisions impacting hundreds of thousands of people because others did it and based on press reports,” the source said.

An EU spokesperson did not respond to MEE’s request for comment on the matter.

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A second source told MEE that in a recent meeting of EU members states, including some that suspended Unrwa funding, diplomats said they had neither received evidence from Israel, nor had they asked for any.

These revelations come as Unrwa, the main UN agency that supports Palestinians and the largest relief agency operating in Gaza, says it will have to suspend operations by the end of this month or in early March as a result of the funding freeze.

“People are going to die if the agency is not supported and if the agency is forced to take very tough decisions that no humanitarian agency or organisation should take,” Juliette Touma, Unrwa’s director of communications, told MEE on Thursday.

“We call on all of these countries that have suspended the funding to reconsider their decisions because the lives of millions of people not only in Gaza but in the region depend on that assistance and that funding.”

Israel and Unrwa

There have been longstanding tensions between Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayahu, and Unrwa, even while Israel counts on the agency to provide services to Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank it would otherwise have to provide itself.

Unrwa has said it first learned about the allegations that a dozen of its roughly 13,000 employees based in Gaza were involved in the 7 October attack on Israel in which 1,200 people were killed, in an 18 January meeting between Unrwa Commissoner General Philippe Lazzarini and Israeli officials.

The Israeli officials told Lazzarini about the allegations during the meeting, including verbally sharing the names of 12 employees alleged to have been involved, but did not share any documents or reports, Unrwa told MEE.

‘People are going to die if the agency is not supported and if the agency is forced to take very tough decisions’

– Juliette Touma, Unrwa

On 26 January, Lazzarini announced that “to protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance”, Unrwa had terminated the contracts of the staff members in question and would “launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay”.

That same day, the US announced its decision to suspend funding from Unrwa. Within 24 hours, eight more countries had followed suit.

Currently, 20 donor countries have placed a hold on funding commitments to Unrwa or said they would reassess future pledges. The agency says these donors account for around half of its operational budget.

A Channel 4 report on Monday revealed details of a six-page Israeli dossier said to have been shared with donor countries.

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The dossier, which MEE has seen, alleges that 12 Unrwa employees were involved in the 7 October attacks, including kidnapping, coordinating weapons movements and taking part in raids on the border communities of the Be’eri and Re’im kibbutzim.

The document, written in Hebrew, also says it is “possible to flag” around 190 employees who are Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives.

It says the information is based on intelligence and documents and identity cards seized since 7 October, and includes names and photos of the 12 employees and the activities they are said to have carried out, but provides no further evidence.

Since the dossier was reported on, politicians and journalists, among others, have questioned why governments relied on the unproven details presented in the document.

But it remains unclear to MEE how many governments saw the dossier – or any other evidence beyond what has been reported in the media – before they made their funding decisions.

‘I have not seen any evidence’

MEE asked the foreign ministries of more than a dozen countries that have suspended or delayed funds whether they received the dossier, on what basis they had made their decision and whether they asked for or had received further information from Israel.

Only Latvia made clear how it had come to its decision to temporarily suspend its annual payment, which a foreign ministry spokesperson told MEE was “based on the information publicly confirmed by the UN Secretary General and other UN officials”.

The Netherlands did not respond to MEE’s request, but on 31 January, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Geoffrey van Leeuwen told the Dutch House of Representatives he had seen no evidence.

“I have not seen any evidence yet,” Van Leeuwen said, according to an official transcript. “But Unrwa itself has already fired those people. They are apparently very serious about the allegations.”

Unrwa flour Gaza
Palestinians receiving bags of flour from Unrwa, November 2023 (AFP)

On Wednesday, the CBC reported that Canadian government sources told the outlet that Israel had still not shared evidence to substantiate its claims about Unrwa staff.

On Thursday, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, told ABC News that she had sought further information from Israel while admitting that she “does not yet have all the evidence to hand”.

US officials have said Israel gave them a dossier on the day they announced the suspension of funds, but it remains unclear to MEE whether the US was given the six-page dossier which has been shared with media or something more or different.

During a 31 January press conference, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that while the US had not been able to confirm the allegations, they were “highly, highly credible”.

MEE asked the State Department whether Blinken was referring to the six-page dossier with his comments and whether the US had asked for further evidence beyond what it was given on 26 January, but did not get a response.

US uses firing as reason

In a press briefing on 1 February, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that the US based its decision on both the dossier that officials received as well as Unrwa’s decision to fire the employees.

“I should make it very clear our decision to temporarily pause funding was not just based on the strength of Israeli evidence, but it was based on Unrwa’s own conclusion that those allegations were credible,” Miller told reporters.

On Thursday, Touma told MEE that, until now, Unrwa has “never received in writing any information about these allegations”.

She further underlined that staff contracts were terminated not as a result of evidence before Unrwa, but rather “in the best interests of the agency due to the huge reputational risk that these allegations have on the agency and also the risk that such allegations have on the humanitarian operation in Gaza”.

The Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the UN’s internal investigation authority, is currently looking into the allegations, which former OIOS investigators have said could take between six months and a year.

‘We have worked with these very same donors time and time again to depoliticise Unrwa. What have they done? They’ve weaponised Unrwa’

– Chris Gunness, former Unrwa spokesperson

An independent review led by former French foreign minister Catherina Colona, which will assess whether the agency is doing “everything within its power” to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations of serious breaches when they are made, is to begin work on 14 February with an interim report expected by late March.

As famine looms in Gaza, several of the countries that have suspended funding to Unrwa have chanelled money to other organisations working in the war zone.

But aid experts, former Unrwa officials and others, including Sigrid Kaag, the UN senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza, have said there are no other organisations in Gaza right now that have the capacity to deliver the immediate humanitarian aid that is required, and was ordered by the International Court of Justice last month.

Chris Gunness, a former spokesperson for Unrwa, told MEE: “All of the agencies in Gaza – the World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – that does not add up to more than about 100 or 200 people. It’s tiny.”

He estimated that if Unrwa was abolished, it would take three years to hire, vet and train another 13,000 employees and twice the amount of money to establish an equivalent agency.

Meanwhile, he warned of mass starvation if the funding is not put back in place or new donors, potentially in the Gulf where Lazzarini has visited this week, are not found.

“We have worked with these very same donors time and time again to depoliticise Unrwa. What have they done? They’ve weaponised Unrwa,” he said. “It’s unforgivable what they are doing.”

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Disclaimer: Countries froze Unrwa funds without seeing evidence of Israeli claims - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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