Updated Jan 27, 2024 - World

Eight countries join U.S. in pausing funding to UN aid agency in Gaza

UNRWA workers pack the medical aid and prepare it for distribution to hospitals at a warehouse in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

UNRWA workers pack the medical aid and prepare it for distribution to hospitals at a warehouse in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Germany, Canada, the U.K., and six other Western nations have joined the U.S. in pausing funding for UN Palestinian refugee agency after Israel alleged 12 UNRWA employees were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack.

The big picture: UNRWA has fired the accused staffers and launched an investigation. The head of UNRWA warned on Saturday that "lifesaving assistance is about to end" due to nine countries' decision to suspend funding.

  • "UNRWA is the primary humanitarian agency in Gaza, with over 2 million people depending on it for their sheer survival," UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement.
  • "Many are hungry as the clock is ticking towards a looming famine. The Agency runs shelters for over 1 million people and provides food and primary healthcare even at the height of the hostilities," he added.

Driving the news: A senior Israeli official said the Shin Bet and Israeli military intelligence provided information that pointed to the active participation of UNRWA staffers and the use of the agency's vehicles and facilities during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

  • "This was strong and corroborated intelligence," the official said. "A lot of the intelligence is a result of interrogations of militants who were arrested during the Oct. 7 attack."

The U.S. on Friday became the first country to pause its funding to UNRWA over the allegations. It was the first step by the Biden administration against UNRWA since renewing U.S. funding to the agency after the Trump administration completely cut it off.

  • State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the U.S. is "extremely troubled by the allegations" and the administration has "temporarily paused additional funding for UNRWA while we review these allegations and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them."
  • Germany, UNRWA's second-largest donor, joined the U.S. in pausing funding on Saturday. The U.K., Finland, Australia, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland also temporarily suspended their funding.

State of play: Lazzarini said on Friday he terminated the contracts of the accused staff members and launched an investigation to "establish the truth without delay."

  • "Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution," Lazzarini said.
  • "UNRWA reiterates its condemnation in the strongest possible terms of the abhorrent attacks" on Oct. 7 and "calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all Israeli hostages and their safe return to their families," he added.

The UN will conduct an "urgent and comprehensive independent review of UNRWA," Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said on Friday.

  • Guterres is "horrified" by the allegations, Dujarric added.
  • He has also asked Lazzarini to "investigate this matter swiftly and to ensure that any UNRWA employee shown to have participated or abetted what transpired on 7 October, or in any other criminal activity, be terminated immediately and referred for potential criminal prosecution," he added.

What they're saying: Miller said Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke to Guterres on Thursday and emphasized "the necessity of a thorough and swift investigation of this matter."

  • Miller welcomed the UN's announcement of a comprehensive and independent review of UNRWA, and said there "must be complete accountability for anyone who participated in the heinous attacks of Oct. 7."
  • "UNRWA plays a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians, including essential food, medicine, shelter, and other vital humanitarian support," Miller added.
  • "Their work has saved lives, and it is important that UNRWA address these allegations and take any appropriate corrective measures, including reviewing its existing policies and procedures."

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Friday thanked the Biden administration for "taking an important step in holding UNRWA accountable."

  • "Terrorism under the guise of humanitarian work is a disgrace to the UN and the principles it claims to represent," he added.

Editor's note: This story and headline has been updated with additional details throughout.

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