Major donors to the UN Palestinian refugee agency are freezing aid over alleged staff participation in terror attacks. The EU has deferred its decision pending a probe. Aid groups warn of dire consequences for Gaza.
The European Union (EU) has indicated it would await the outcome of investigations into “very serious allegations” that several staff members of the Palestinian refugee agency were involved in the October 7 terrorist attacks on Israel before deciding on future contributions. Nearly a dozen western states have already announced funding freezes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The European Commission, which coordinates aid for Palestinians paid for by joint EU funds, said in a press release published Monday that it would “review the matter in light of the outcome of the investigation announced by the UN.”
The EU is the third-biggest donor to UNRWA after Washington and Berlin, and quadrupled its overall humanitarian aid to Palestinians since the start of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, itself triggered by Hamas’ incursion into southern Israel.
The United Nations and many NGOs are sounding the alarm about the dangers of freezing aid during an already critical situation in besieged Gaza, where famine looms. The European Commission pledged to keep up EU support. “Humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will continue unabated through partner organizations,” the EU executive branch wrote.
What unleashed the aid freezes?
The UNRWA employs 30,000 people across the region, including 13,000 in besieged Gaza. Last week, Israel accused 12 UNRWA staff members of involvement in the October 7 attacks in southern Israel.
The evidence against the accused employees has not yet been made public, but the UN has announced it had terminated the contracts of nine of those concerned and would carry out a full investigation. One of the accused was dead, and the remaining two staff member’s identities were being verified, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Sunday.
In Brussels on Monday, European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said it was much too soon to give a timeline for any EU decision. “We will cross that bridge when we get there,” Mamer told reporters at a press briefing.
It was also too early to speculate whether the EU would approve diverting aid for UNRWA, which totaled €82 million euros ($86.5 million dollars) last year, to other organizations, Mamer added.
Where do EU states stand?
Berlin, a close backer of Israel, said it would not approve any new funds for the time being. “Until the end of the investigation, Germany, in coordination with other donor countries, will temporarily not approve any new funds for UNRWA in Gaza,” the German Foreign Office and Development Ministry announced jointly on Saturday, in comments reported by news agency dpa.
EU member states divided
EU member states diverged in their reactions to the question of continuing UNRWA aid.
Spain, which is governed by a left-wing coalition and whose Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares has advocated for an indepdendent Palestinian state, announced on Monday that it would not suspend aid. Ireland and Luxembourg also said they would keep funds flowing.
“UNRWA’s 13,000 employees provide lifesaving assistance to 2.3 [million] people at an incredible personal cost, with over 100 staff killed in the last four months,” Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday.
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Norway, which is not part of the EU, said it would not pause funding and called on those who were freezing funds to reconsider.
“While I share the concern over the very serious allegations against some UNRWA staff, I urge other donors to reflect on the wider consequences of cutting funding to UNRWA in this time of extreme humanitarian distress,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide wrote in a statement. “We should not collectively punish millions of people.”
What’s at stake for Gazans?
UN Secretary-General Guterres, who has clashed frequently with Israeli officials since it began its offensive in Gaza with the stated aim of destroying Hamas, urged the donors to reconsider over the weekend.
UNRWA, currently the main provider of aid in Gaza amid tight Israeli restrictions on deliveries, would not be able to operate there past the end of February, spokesperson Juliette Touma warned in comments reported by Associated Press news agency. Many of the estimated 1.7 million internally displaced Gazans are currently residing in UNRWA shelters.
Israel and the UNRWA, a difficult history
Over the years, Israel has frequently criticized the UN agency for its understanding of what constitutes a Palestinian refugee, as well as for allegedly using problematic teaching materials in schools, for example. The US suspended its funding for UNRWA under the presidency of Donald Trump, but it was reinstated by Joe Biden.
Generally speaking, the EU and its member states have in the past been more cautious when responding to Israeli complaints, Oxfam’s humanitarian crises spokesperson Robert Lindner told DW. “In the case of Germany, I think that’s unprecedented,” he said of Berlin’s current temporary aid suspension.
Oxfam is “deeply disappointed” with what its sees as rash, disproportionate decisions of governments to suspend aid, seemingly “without even checking whether there is any substance behind it and without waiting for results of investigation,” Lindner said. “We see a really big risk in terms of really exacerbating the crisis of human suffering.”
While the present allegations against UNRWA members were serious, in the past, the Israeli government has leveled accusations at civil society organizations, for example, that have turned out to be false, Lindner said.
He also recalled that on Friday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had ordered Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, an emergency injunction handed down in the ongoing genocide trial against Israel brought by South Africa.
“They should be refraining from hindering humanitarian aid and second, the international donor governments, they have this obligation as well to support the ICJ in implementing this,” Lindnder said.