London: The UK government still has no answers about if or when it will restart funding to the main relief agency in Gaza despite mounting reports of famine.
Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said last month it was stopping aid to UNRWA while it “reviewed” allegations from the Israeli government that 12 of the agency’s 13,000 staff had been involved in attacks on Israel in October.
No such suspension has been announced of Britain’s arms exports to Israel, despite the International Court of Justice having found there was a plausible case that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza. The ICJ also ordered Israel to allow aid into the region.
The Israeli government’s allegations came in the form of a six-page dossier, which Israel passed to UNRWA and its donors the day after the genocide ruling. In recent years, claims made by the Israeli government have repeatedly been subsequently dismissed as propaganda intended to influence geopolitics at key moments.
Labour MP Zarah Sultana has submitted a parliamentary question asking the department what the review involves and how long it will take given the urgent humanitarian crisis in the region more than two weeks on, but it has snubbed both her and openDemocracy’s questions.
While the dossier that Israel passed to UNRWA and its donors was confidential, Channel 4 News managed to get a copy, and said it provided no evidence for the explosive claims, which knocked the genocide ruling off front pages across the western world.
UNRWA, whose full name is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, was founded in 1949 to support the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees forced from their homes in order to create the state of Israel in 1948.
It currently supports 5.9 million Palestinian refugees, including those in Gaza and the West Bank affected by the current conflict, in Lebanon where there is ongoing socio-economic collapse, in Syria, where the civil war continues, and in Jordan. With its projects including running schools, medical clinics and hospitals and the distribution of food aid, it is the biggest single UN agency.
Before the allegations were made, senior Israeli officials had argued that it would be necessary to destroy UNRWA in order to win the war on Gaza.
Sultana called the government’s suspension of UNRWA funding “an act of collective punishment on the Palestinian people, millions of whom are currently displaced, unable to access food and water, and in urgent need of humanitarian aid”.
She said it was right that the allegations against UNRWA staff were investigated, but added that it was Britain’s duty under international law to ensure Palestinians in Gaza have access to humanitarian assistance. “The government’s refusal to be transparent about this decision and the process for its investigation is wholly unacceptable,” she said.
The UK’s contributions to UNRWA have varied over the years, peaking at around £90m in 2019 before being slashed to around £25m in 2022. UNRWA has subsequently admitted it fired all the staff members accused by Israel of involvement in the attacks before investigating whether there was any truth to the allegations.
The UN Secretary General has called for the donors who have suspended their funding “to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations”. UNRWA has said that the decision of some donors to suspend funding “threatens our ongoing humanitarian work across the region”. While some governments, like the UK, have suspended aid, others including Belgium, Ireland, Denmark and Spain have continued their funding.
The UK government has said that it remains “committed to getting humanitarian aid to the people in Gaza who desperately need it,” but other aid organisations who operate in Gaza have argued that none but UNRWA has the capacity to deliver it. More than 20 aid groups, including Oxfam and Save the Children, have warned that, if funding suspensions are not reversed, “we may see a complete collapse of the already restricted humanitarian response in Gaza”, calling the government’s decision “reckless”.
The UK says it “allocated” £16m to UNRWA between 7 October and the suspension in January, and that no further UK funding was due until April 2024. It has not said how much of the £16m has already been paid or spent, and how much is affected by the decision to suspend payments.
The BBC reported yesterday that children in northern Gaza have been going for days without food as aid can no longer reach them.