Why funding to UNRWA must be restored now

A people facing famine, children dying in their thousands, disease spreading, homes destroyed, a desperate lack of humanitarian support.

Wherever this was happening in the world, we would normally expect the UK Government to express its deep concern and pledge millions of pounds in emergency aid to ease extreme suffering.  Even against a background of a collapse in overseas humanitarian aid under the Tories, it’s what Ministers have done in response to crises from the Rohingya people driven out of Myanmar and to famine conditions in the Horn of Africa.

But not in Gaza.  There international humanitarian rules have been turned on their head with the Government taking the outrageous decision to suspend all funding to the main humanitarian agency in Gaza, UNRWA, at a time when two million Palestinians are facing desperate conditions because of Israel’s military operation in the territory. UN agencies warned two weeks ago that there was a risk of famine in Gaza.  The UN special rapporteur on the right to food says now it is inevitable.

This is a shocking abdication of our humanitarian responsibilities. Collective punishment is illegal under international law yet the Government’s action makes the UK complicit in exactly that.  Millions of Palestinians are being made to pay for the alleged actions of a few individuals. 

The Israeli accusations that a dozen UNRWA employees were involved in the heinous attacks of October 7th are deeply concerning. I would expect any organisation faced with such shocking allegations against its staff to take immediate action and suspend the individuals involved and pledge to investigate.

And that is exactly what UNRWA has done. In fact, it’s gone further and fired nine of those accused even before an independent investigation has begun. One is believed to be dead, the other two have not yet been traced. Yet that hasn’t stopped a growing list of countries pulling funding from UNRWA – Japan is the latest to join the UK, US, Canada, Australia and several European countries in a shameful rush to judgement and mass punishment.

Nearly 90 percent of UNRWA’s funding comes from UN member states and the EU. So the impact of this is devastating. In Europe, Norway and Ireland stand out as countries which are continuing their funding because they recognise that international support for Palestine is needed now more than ever. The Irish foreign minister Micheal Martin says withdrawing funding now would be “catastrophic” for the Palestinians and countries which have done so have acted “far too prematurely”. 

The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, has urged donors not to starve children for the alleged crimes of a few individual aid workers.  The UN Secretary General has promised that any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable but begged donor countries not to penalise everyone who works for the organisation.

UNRWA employs 13,000 people in Gaza who work at extreme risk. More than 150 have been killed since October 7th.  They must now feel there is a target on their backs.

The 12 individuals accused of involvement in the October 7th terror attacks represent fewer than one in a thousand of UNRWA’s Gaza employees. Yet because of allegations against a small number of individuals, a vital humanitarian operation which supports two million people is facing collapse.  The UN says the loss of funding means aid for Palestinians in Gaza may end within a month

The Israeli government’s hatred of UNRWA is well documented.  It’s accused the organisation of providing cover for Hamas and of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee crisis. If it succeeds in driving UNRWA out of Gaza – which is Netanyahu’s declared aim – the Palestinians there will be left entirely at the mercy of the current Israeli government’s economic and military stranglehold on the territory. Many will be forced to flee, which is exactly what some of Netanyahu’s right-wing allies say they want to happen.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the Israeli government’s accusations against the UNRWA employees came less than 48 hours after the International Court of Justice had ordered Israel to do all it could to prevent death, destruction and any act of genocide in Gaza.  Suddenly it’s no longer Israel which is in the dock, but the UN. 

Since November, the UK Government has been trotting out platitudes about supporting a two-state solution to end Israel-Palestinian conflict, to “provide justice and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

There is no justice or security for Palestinians if two million civilians are driven out of Gaza because the UK has helped kill off UNRWA – an organisation which it has previously praised as “a necessary humanitarian and stabilising force” across the region. 

Labour’s initial response supporting the Government’s action was shameful.  The party seems to have changed its tune but calling on the Government to outline a clear and fast path for future funding to return isn’t enough.  It must be restored immediately.

This is collective punishment, plain and simple. It’s against international law and the UK Government is letting it happen.