EU to continue funding UNRWA as it probes alleged staff involvement in Oct 7 attacks

Israeli soldiers take position as they enter the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.
Israeli soldiers take position as they enter the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. Copyright Ariel Schalit/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Ariel Schalit/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Mared Gwyn JonesLaszlo Seres
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The European Commission will continue to fund the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) as probes continue into the alleged involvement of 12 staff members in Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel.

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The Commission confirmed on Friday morning that it will proceed with the €82 million payment foreseen for UNRWA in 2024, with a first €50-million tranche to be paid next week.

The executive will also pledge an additional €68 million in emergency support to Palestinians across the region, to be paid through international partners such as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, as concerns mount over the Israeli offensive in the besieged Gaza Strip. 

In late January, the Commission launched a review of its support to UNRWA after Israel accused a dozen staff members of involvement in Hamas’ October attacks, which killed over 1,200 Israelis and provoked a war in Gaza that has claimed the lives of some 30,000 Palestinians.

The bloc’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell and humanitarian aid commissioner Janez Lenarčič have both said that Israel is yet to provide evidence to back its allegations.

Some Western nations - including Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States - decided to temporarily suspend aid in response to the accusations, dealing a devastating blow to the donor-reliant agency, which says its deliveries of humanitarian cargo have halved since January.

Other countries such as Spain, Ireland and Belgium, continued or increased their support. 

The Commission's decision to proceed with payments was taken in light of the steps taken by UNRWA to audit its recruitment procedures, bolster its internal oversight mechanisms and vet its 30,000-strong workforce.

EU neighbourhood commissioner Olivér Várhelyi said that UNRWA's commitment to "introduce robust measures to prevent possible misconduct & minimize risk of allegations is welcome."

It is seen as a lifeline for the agency, which had warned it could shut down by the end of February unless donations resumed. It also puts pressure on other nations to review their decisions to withhold funding. Later on Friday, Belgium announced it was committing payments to UNRWA for 2024-2026, with development minister Caroline Gennez warning that "defunding means death sentence for 10,000s".

A Commission spokesperson said that discussions with UNRWA regarding the conditions in order to safeguard the flow of aid had continued until earlier on Friday. 

The bloc's humanitarian aid to Palestinians - which amounts to €125 million in 2024 - continued unabated whilst the review was underway. Friday's announcement brings the EU's support to Palestinians to a total of €275 million this year.

Lenarčič commended the commitment of an additional €68 million in aid, warning that "thousands of lives are at stake."

A lifeline for UNRWA

The decision comes as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza deepens. 

On Thursday, at least 112 were killed when the Israeli military opened fire on a crowd of hungry Palestinians, as an aid convoy moved in to Gaza City, in the north of the strip.

The massacre has been condemned by EU leaders, including Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The condemnation marks a turn of rhetoric for von der Leyen, who has throughout the conflict maintained a strong pro-Israeli stance.

European Council President Charles Michel also said on social media platform X that he was "shocked and repulsed" by the killing, adding that "international law does not allow for double standards."

The deadly attacks follow repeated warnings from UNRWA that the humanitarian situation in the north of the enclave has hindered the delivery of aid due to dangerous conditions.

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In February, UNRWA chief Phillippe Lazzarini said in Brussels that UN agencies were unable to operate with the minimum required protection because many of the local police force had been killed or were reluctant to assist aid convoys due to fears for their safety.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) later announced it had decided to pause its deliveries to the north of Gaza "until conditions are in place that allow for safe distributions."

It means pockets of famine have appeared in the north, with the WFP's Famine Review Committee warning over 500,000, almost one in four of the population, could fall into famine by May.

Lazzarini has said that the exodus of donors has stripped UNRWA of $450 million (€418 million) this year alone, and that he is engaged with a number of countries to assess their expectations to allow the release of funds.

Borrell and other leading EU voices have consistently highlighted that UNRWA's work in Gaza is irreplaceable, and that to withdraw funding would have "dangerous repercussions on regional stability and would affect Europeans too."

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that UNRWA is "totally infiltrated" by Hamas and has called for the agency to be dismantled.

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